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Communications of the ACM

Arab World special section: Big trends

A Panoramic Survey of Natural Language Processing in the Arab World

Arabic letterforms, illustration

Credit: Andrij Borys Associates, Shutterstock

The term natural language refers to any system of symbolic communication (spoken, signed, or written) that has evolved naturally in humans without intentional human planning and design. This distinguishes natural languages such as Arabic and Japanese from artificially constructed languages such as Esperanto or Python. Natural language processing (NLP), also called computational linguistics or human language technologies, is the sub-field of artificial intelligence (AI) focused on modeling natural languages to build applications such as speech recognition and synthesis, machine translation, optical character recognition (OCR), sentiment analysis (SA), question answering, and dialogue systems. NLP is a highly interdisciplinary field with connections to computer science, linguistics, cognitive science, psychology, mathematics, and others.

Some of the earliest AI applications were in NLP (machine translation, for example); and the last decade (2010–2020) in particular has witnessed an incredible increase in quality, matched with a rise in public awareness, use, and expectations of what may have seemed like science fiction in the past. NLP researchers pride themselves on developing language-independent models and tools that can be applied to all human languages. Machine translation systems, for example, can be built for a variety of languages using the same basic mechanisms and models. However, the reality is that some languages (English and Chinese) do get more attention than others (Hindi and Swahili). Arabic, the primary language of the Arab world and the religious language of millions of non-Arab Muslims, is somewhere in the middle of this continuum. Though Arabic NLP has many challenges, it has seen many successes and developments.


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