Speech-to-text Translation (ST) has many potential applications for low-resource languages: for example in language documentation, where the source language is often unwritten or endangered [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]; or in crisis relief, where emergency workers might need to respond to calls or requests in a foreign language . Traditional ST is a pipeline of automatic speech recognition (ASR) and machine translation (MT), and thus requires requires transcribed source audio to train ASR and parallel text to train MT. These resources are typically unavailable for low-resource languages, but for our potential applications, there may be some source language audio paired with target language text translations. In these scenarios, end-to-end ST is appealing.
Recently, Weiss et al.  showed that end-to-end ST can be very effective, achieving an impressive BLEU score of 47.3 on Spanish-English ST. But this result required over 150 hours of translated audio for training, still a substantial resource requirement. By comparison, a similar system trained on only 20 hours of data for the same task achieved a BLEU score of 5.3 . Other low-resource systems have similarly low accuracies [9, 10].
To improve end-to-end ST in low-resource settings, we can try to leverage other data resources. For example, if we have transcribed audio in the source language, we can use multi-task learning to improve ST [9, 7, 10]. But source language transcriptions are unlikely to be available in our scenarios of interest. Could we improve low-resource ST by leveraging resources from a high-resource language? For ASR, training a single model on multiple languages can be effective for all of them [11, 12]. For MT, transfer learning  has been very effective: pre-training a model for a high-resource language pair and transferring its parameters to a low-resource language pair when the target language is shared [14, 15]. Inspired by these successes, we show that low-resource ST can leverage transcribed audio in a high-resource target language, or even a different language altogether, simply by pre-training a model for the high-resource ASR task, and then transferring and fine-tuning some or all of the model’s parameters for low-resource ST.
We first test our approach using Spanish as the source language and English as the target. After training an ASR system on 300 hours of English, fine-tuning on 20 hours of Spanish-English yields a BLEU score of 20.2, compared to only 10.8 for an ST model without ASR pre-training. Analyzing this result, we discover that the main benefit of pre-training arises from the transfer of the encoder parameters, which model the input acoustic signal. In fact, this effect is so strong that we also obtain improvements by pre-training on a language that differs from either the source or target: pre-training on French and then fine-tuning on Spanish-English. We hypothesize that pre-training the encoder parameters, even on a different language, allows the model to better normalize over acoustic variability (such as speaker and channel differences), and conclude that this variability, rather than translation itself, is one of the main difficulties in low-resource ST. A final set of experiments confirm that ASR pre-training also helps on another language pair where the input is truly low-resource: Mboshi-French.
For both ASR and ST, we use an encoder-decoder model with attention adapted from [7, 10, 8], as shown in Figure 1. We use the same set of hyper-parameters for all our models, allowing us to conveniently transfer parameters between them. We also constrain the hyper-parameter search to fit a model into a single Titan X GPU, allowing us to maximize available compute resources.
We use a pre-trained English ASR model to initialize training of Spanish-English ST models, and a pre-trained French ASR model to initialize training of Mboshi-French ST models. In these configurations, the decoder shares the same vocabulary across the ASR and ST tasks. This is practical for settings where the target text language is high-resource with ASR data available.
In settings where both ST languages are low-resource, ASR data may only be available in a third language. To test whether transfer learning will help in this setting, we use a pre-trained French ASR model to train Spanish-English ST models; and English ASR for Mboshi-French models. In these cases, the ST languages are different from the ASR language, so we can only transfer the encoder parameters of the ASR model, since the dimensions of the decoder’s output softmax layer are indexed by the vocabulary, which is not shared.111Using a shared vocabulary of characters or subwords is an interesting direction for future work, but one we don’t explore here. Sharing only the speech encoder parameters is much easier, since the speech input can be preprocessed in the same manner for all languages. This form of transfer learning is more flexible, as there are no constraints on the ASR language used.
3 Experimental Setup
3.1 Data sets
English ASR. We use the Switchboard Telephone speech corpus , which consists of around 300 hours of English speech and transcripts, split into 260k utterances. The development set consists of 5 hours that we removed from the training set, split into 4k utterances.
French ASR. We use the French speech corpus from the GlobalPhone collection , which consists of around 20 hours of high quality read speech and transcripts, split into 9k utterances. The development set consists of 2 hours, split into 800 utterances.
Spanish-English ST. We use the Fisher Spanish speech corpus , which consists of 160 hours of telephone speech in a variety of Spanish dialects, split into 140K utterances. To simulate low-resource conditions, we construct smaller training corpora consisting of 50, 20, 10, 5, or 2.5 hours of data, selected at random from the full training data. The development and test sets each consist of around 4.5 hours of speech, split into 4K utterances. We do not use the corresponding Spanish transcripts; our target text consists of English translations that were collected through crowdsourcing [19, 20].
Mboshi-French ST. Mboshi is a Bantu language spoken in the Republic of Congo, with around 160,000 speakers.222https://www.ethnologue.com/language/mdw We use the Mboshi-French parallel corpus , which consists of around 4 hours of Mboshi speech, split into a training set of 5K utterances and a development set of 500 utterances. Since this corpus does not include a designated test set, we randomly sampled and removed 200 utterances from training to use as a development set, and use the designated development data as a test set.
Speech. We convert raw speech input to 13-dimensional MFCCs using Kaldi .333In preliminary experiments, we did not find much difference between Mel filterbank features and MFCCs.
We also perform speaker-level mean and variance normalization. We do not stack the 13-dimensional features with delta and delta-deltas.
Text. The target text of the Spanish-English dataset contains 1.5M word tokens and 17K word types. If we model text as sequences of words, our model cannot produce any of the unseen word types in the test data and is penalized for this, but it can be trained very quickly . If we instead model text as sequences of characters as in , we would have 7M tokens and 100 types, resulting in a model that is open-vocabulary, but very slow to train . As an effective middle ground, we use byte pair encoding (BPE)  to segment each word into subwords, each of which is a character or a high-frequency sequence of characters—we use 1000 of these high-frequency sequences. Since the set of subwords includes the full set of characters, the model is still open vocabulary; but it results in a text with only 1.9M tokens and just over 1K types, which can be trained almost as fast as the word-level model.
The vocabulary for BPE depends on the frequency of character sequences, so it must be computed with respect to a specific corpus. For English, we use the Spanish-English ST target training text; and for French, the Mboshi-French ST target training text. Using only one vocabulary per target language simplifies our experimental setup, but is slightly unnatural since the Spanish-English vocabulary depends on the full 160-hour training set. However we have not observed substantial differences in experimental results due to this.
3.3 Model architecture for ASR and ST
. We stride with a factor of 2 along time, in each of the CNN layers, reducing the sequence length by a factor of 4, which is important for reducing computation in the subsequent RNN layers. We apply batch normalization after each CNN layer.
The output of the CNN layers is fed into a three-layer bi-directional long short-term memory (LSTM); each hidden layer has 256 dimensions.
At each time step, the decoder chooses the most probable token from the output of a softmax layer produced by a fully-connected layer that receives the current state of a recurrent layer computed from previous time steps, and an attention vector computed over the input. Attention is computed using theglobal attentional model with general score function and input-feeding, as described in . The predicted token is then fed into a 128-dimensional embedding layer followed by a three-layer LSTM to update the recurrent state; each hidden state has 256 dimensions. While training, we use the predicted token 20% of the time as input to the next decoder step; and the training token for the remaining 80% of the time . At test time we use beam decoding with a beam size of 5 and length normalization  with a weight of 0.6.
Training and implementation.30]. For embedding and fully-connected layers, we use Chainer  default initializer settings.
We regularize using dropout , with a ratio of over the embedding and the LSTM layers , and a weight decay rate of . The parameters are optimized using Adam , with a starting alpha of 0.001.
Following some preliminary experimentation on our development set, we add Gaussian noise with standard deviation of 0.25 to the MFCC features during training, and drop frames with a probability of 0.10. After 20 epochs, we corrupt the true decoder labels by sampling a random output label with a probability of 0.3.
Our code is implemented in Chainer  and freely available.444 https://github.com/0xSameer/speech2text/tree/seq2seq
In low-resource settings, BLEU scores tend to be low, difficult to interpret, and poorly correlated with model performance. This is because BLEU requires exact four-gram matches only, but low four-gram accuracy may obscure a high unigram accuracy and inexact translations that partially capture the semantics of an utterance, and these can still be very useful in situations like language documentation and crisis response. Therefore, we also report word-level unigram precision and recall, taking into accountstem, synonym, and paraphrase matches. To compute these scores, we use METEOR  with default settings for English and French.666http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~alavie/METEOR/ For example, METEOR assigns “eat” a recall of 1 against reference “eat” and a recall of 0.8 against reference “feed”, which it considers a synonym match.
Naive baselines. We also include evaluation scores for a naive baseline model that predicts the K most frequent words of the training set as a bag of words for each test utterance. In each experimental condition, we set K to be the value at which precision/recall are most similar, which is always between 5 and 20 words. The purpose of this baseline is to provide an empirical lower bound on precision and recall, since we would expect any usable model to outperform a system that does not even depend on the input utterance. We do not compute BLEU for these baselines, since they do not predict sequences, only bags of words.
4 ASR results
Using the experimental setup of Section 3, we pre-trained ASR models in English and French. To put our subsequent results in context, we report their word error rates (WER) on development data in Table 1.777We computed WER with the NIST sclite script. We denote each ASR model by L-Nh, where L is a language code and N is the size of the training set in hours. For example, en-300h denotes an English ASR model trained on 300 hours of data; fr-20h, a French ASR model trained on 20 hours of data.
Training ASR models for state-of-the-art performance requires substantial hyper-parameter tuning and long training times. For example, it took 3 days for our en-300h model to reach a WER of 27.3% on development data, though we observed that it continued to improve for three more days. Since our goal is simply to see whether pre-training is useful, and not to produce state-of-the-art ASR systems, we stopped pre-training our models after around 30 epochs to focus on transfer experiments. As a consequence, our ASR results are far from state-of-the-art: current end-to-end Kaldi systems obtain 16% WER on Switchboard train-dev, and 22.7% WER on the French Globalphone dev set.888These WER results taken from respective Kaldi recipes on Github, and may not even represent the best results on these datasets. We believe that better ASR pre-training may produce better ST results.
5 Spanish-English ST
In the following, we denote an ST model by S-T-Nh, where S and T are source and target language codes, and N is the size of the training set in hours. For example, sp-en-20h denotes a Spanish-English ST model trained using 20 hours of data; mb-fr-4h denotes a Mboshi-French ST model trained on 4 hours of data.
5.1 Using English ASR to improve Spanish-English ST
Figure 2 plots BLEU (a) and unigram precision/recall (b) on the development set for baseline Spanish-English ST models and those trained after initializing with the en-300h model. Corresponding results on the test set (Table 2) reveal very similar patterns, so the remainder of our analysis is confined to the development set. The naive baseline, which predicts the 15 most frequent English words in the training set, achieves a precision/recall around 20, setting a performance lower bound.
Low-resource: 20-50 hours of ST training data. Without transfer learning, our baseline ST models substantially improve over previous results  using the same train/ test splits, primarily due to better regularization and modeling of subwords rather than words. Yet transfer learning still substantially improves these strong baselines. For sp-en-20h, transfer learning improves dev set BLEU from 10.8 to 19.9, precision from 41% to 51%, and recall from 38% to 49%. For sp-en-50h, transfer learning improves BLEU from 23.3 to 27.8, precision from 54% to 58%, and recall from 51% to 56%.
Very low-resource: 10 hours or less of ST training data. Figure 2 shows that without transfer learning, ST models trained on less than 10 hours of data struggle to learn, with precision/recall scores close to or below the lower bound provided by the naive baseline. But with transfer learning, we see gains in precision and recall of between 10 and 20 points.
We also see that with transfer learning, a model trained on only 5 hours of ST data achieves a BLEU of 9.1, nearly as good as the 10.8 of a model trained on 20 hours of ST data without transfer learning. In other words, fine-tuning an English ASR model—which is relatively easy to obtain—produces similar results to training an ST model on four times as much data, which may be difficult to obtain.
We even find that in the very low-resource setting of just 2.5 hours of ST data, transfer from a pre-trained ASR model achieves a precision/recall around 30 and improves by more than 10 points over the naive baseline. In very low-resource scenarios with time constraints—such as in disaster relief—it is possible that even this level of performance may be useful, since it can be used to spot keywords in speech and can be trained in just three hours.
Sample translations. Table 3 shows some example translations for models sp-en-20h and sp-en-50h with and without transfer learning using en-300h, representing the four rightmost systems in each graph of Figure 2. Improvements are more noticeable between the baseline sp-en-20h model and the remaining models, as we might expect from the improvement of 9 BLEU.
|Spanish||buenas ah yo me llamo jenny y estoy llamando de nueva york|
|English||greetings ah my name is jenny and i’m calling from new york|
|20h||well ah ah my name is i’m calling from new york|
|20h+asr||good ah my name is jenny i’m calling from new york|
|50h||good ah my name is jenny i’m calling from new york|
|50h+asr||good ah my name is jenny i’m calling from new york|
|super caliente pero muy bonito|
|English||super hot but very nice|
|20h||you support it but it was very nice|
|20h+asr||you can get alright but it’s very nice|
|50h||super expensive but very nice|
|50h+asr||super hot but it’s very nice|
|sí y usted hace mucho tiempo que que vive aquí|
|English||yes and have you been living here a long time|
|20h||yes i’ve been a long time what did you come here|
|20h+asr||yes and you have a long time that you live here|
|50h||yes you are a long time that you live here|
|50h+asr||yes and have you been here long|
Figure 3 plots the attention weights for the last sample utterance in Table 3. For this utterance, the Spanish and English text have a different word order. mucho tiempo occurs in the middle of the speech utterance, and its translation, long time, is at the end of the English reference. Similarly, vive aquí occurs at the end of the speech utterance, but the translation, living here, is in the middle of the English reference. The baseline sp-en-50h model translates the words correctly but doesn’t get the English word order right. With transfer learning, the model produces a shorter but still accurate translation in the correct word order.
To understand the source of these improvements, we carried out a set of ablation experiments. For most of these experiments, we focus on Spanish-English ST with 20 hours of training data, with and without transfer learning.
Transfer learning with selected parameters. In our first set of experiments, we transferred all parameters of the en-300h model, including the speech encoder CNN and LSTM; the text decoder embedding, LSTM and output layer parameters; and attention parameters. Which of these parameters has the most impact? To answer this question, we train the sp-en-20h model by transferring only selected parameters from en-300h, and randomly initializing the rest. The resulting training curves on the development set are shown in Figure 4.999These scores do not use beam search and are therefore lower than the best scores reported in Figure 2.
The results show that transferring all parameters provides the best results. But they also show that the speech encoder parameters account for most of the gains. We hypothesize that the encoder learns transferable low-level acoustic features that normalize across variability such as speaker and channel differences, and that much of this learning is language-independent. This hypothesis is supported by other work showing the benefits of cross-lingual and multilingual training for speech technology in low-resource target languages [38, 39, 12, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45]. Indeed, there is evidence that speech features trained on multiple languages transfer better than those trained on the same amount of data from a single language .
By contrast, transferring only decoder parameters does not improve the overall BLEU score, though it produces some slight improvements early in training. Since decoder parameters help when used in tandem with encoder parameters, we suspect that the dependency in parameter training order might explain this: the transferred decoder parameters have been trained to expect particular input representations from the encoder, so transferring only the decoder parameters without the encoder might not be useful.
Figure 4 also suggests that models make strong gains early on in the training when using transfer learning. The sp-en-20h model initialized with all model parameters (+asr:all) from en-300h reaches a higher BLEU score after just 5 epochs (2 hours) of training than the model without transfer learning reaches after 60 epochs/20 hours. This again can be useful in disaster-recovery scenarios, where the time to deploy a working system must be minimized.
Amount of ASR data required. Figure 5 shows the impact of increasing the amount of English ASR data used on Spanish-English ST performance for two models: sp-en-20h and sp-en-50h.
For sp-en-20h, we see that using en-100h improves performance by almost 6 BLEU points. By using more English ASR training data (en-300h) model, the BLEU score increases by almost 9 points.
However, for sp-en-50h, improvements are only observed when using en-300h. This implies that transfer learning is most useful in true low-resource scenarios, when only a few tens of hours of training data are available for ST. As the amount of ST training data increases, the benefits of transfer learning tail off, although it’s possible that using even more monolingual data, or improving the training at the ASR step, could extend the benefits to larger ST datasets.
Impact of codeswitching. We also tried using the en-300h ASR model without any fine-tuning to translate Spanish audio to English text. This model achieved a BLEU score of 1.1, with a precision of 15 and recall of 21. The non-zero BLEU score indicates that the model is matching some 4-grams in the reference. This seems to be due to codeswitching in the Fisher-Spanish speech data set. Looking at the dev set utterances, we find several examples where the Spanish transcriptions match the English translations, indicating that the speaker switched into English. For example, there is an utterance whose Spanish transcription and English translation are both “right yeah”, and this English expression is indeed present in the source audio. The English ASR model correctly translates this utterance, which is unsurprising since the phrase “right yeah” occurs nearly 500 times in Switchboard.
Overall, we find that nearly 500 of the 4,000 development set utterances (14%) contain likely codeswitching, since the Spanish transcription and English translations share more than half of their tokens. This suggests that transfer learning from English ASR models might help more than from other languages. To isolate this effect from transfer learning of language-independent speech features, we carried out a further experiment.
5.3 Using French ASR to improve Spanish-English ST
In this experiment, we pre-train using French ASR data for a Spanish-English translation task. Here, we can only transfer the speech encoder parameters, and there should be little if any benefit due to codeswitching.
Because our French data set (20 hours) is much smaller than our English one (300 hours), for a fair comparison we used a 20 hour subset of the English data for pre-training in this experiment. For both the English and French models, we transferred only the encoder parameters.
Table 4 shows that both the English and French 20-hour pre-trained models improve performance on Spanish-English ST. The English model works slightly better, as would be predicted given our discussion of codeswitching, but the French model is also useful, improving BLEU from 10.8 to 12.5. This result strengthens the claim that ASR pre-training on a completely distinct third language can help low-resource ST. Presumably benefits would be much greater if we used a larger ASR dataset, as we did with English above.
6 Mboshi-French ST
Our final set of experiments test our transfer method on ST for the low-resource language Mboshi, where we have only 4 hours of ST training data: Mboshi speech input paired with French text output.
Table 5 shows the ST model scores for Mboshi-French with and without using transfer learning. The first two rows fr-top-8w, fr-top-10w, show precision and recall scores for the naive baselines
where we predict the top 8 or 10 most frequent French words in the Mboshi-French training set. These show that a precision/recall in the low 20s is easy to achieve, although with no n-gram matches (0 BLEU). The pre-trained ASR models by themselves (next two lines) are much worse.
|en-300h + fr-20h||7.1||26.7||23.1|
The baseline model trained only on ST data actually has lower precision/recall than the naive baseline, although its non-zero BLEU score indicates that it is able to correctly predict some n-grams. We see comparable precision/recall to the naive baseline with improvements in BLEU by transferring either French ASR parameters (both encoder and decoder, fr-20h) or English ASR parameters (encoder only, en-300h).
Finally, to achieve the benefits of both the larger training size for the encoder and the matching language of the decoder, we tried transferring the encoding parameters from the en-300h model and the decoding parameters from the fr-20h model. This configuration (en+fr) gives us the best evaluation scores on all metrics, and highlights the flexibility of our framework. Nevertheless, the 4-hour scenario is clearly a very challenging one.
This paper introduced the idea of pre-training an end-to-end speech translation system involving a low-resource language using ASR training data from a higher-resource language. We showed that large gains are possible: for example, we achieved an improvement of 9 BLEU points for a Spanish-English ST model with 20 hours of parallel data and 300 hours of English ASR data. Moreover, the pre-trained model trains more rapidly than the baseline, achieving higher BLEU than the baseline in only a couple of hours, while the baseline trains for more than a day.
We also showed that these methods can be used effectively on a real low-resource language, Mboshi, with only 4 hours of parallel data. The very small size of the data set makes the task challenging, but by combining parameters from an English encoder and French decoder, we outperformed baseline models to obtain a BLEU score of 7.1 and precision/recall of about 25%. We believe ours is the first paper to report word-level BLEU scores on this dataset.
Our analysis indicated that, other things being equal, transferring both encoder and decoder parameters works better than just transferring one or the other. But transferring the encoder parameters is where most of the benefit comes from, so if the choice is between pre-training using a large ASR corpus from a mismatched language or a smaller ASR corpus that matches the output language, using the larger ASR corpus will probably work better.
Despite impressive gains, these experiments only scratch the surface of possible transfer strategies, and our analysis suggests several avenues for further exploration. On the speech side, it might be even more effective to use multilingual training; or to replacing the MFCC input features with pre-trained multilingual features, or features that are targeted to low-resource multispeaker settings [47, 48]. On the language modeling side, simply transferring decoder parameters from an ASR model did not work; but an alternative, and perhaps better, method would be to use pre-trained decoder parameters from a language model, as proposed by Ramachandran et al. , or shallow fusion 
, which interpolates a pre-trained language model during beam search. In these methods, the decoder parameters are independent, and can therefore be used on their own. We plan to explore this space of strategies in future work.
This work was supported in part by a James S McDonnell Foundation Scholar Award, a Google faculty research award, and NSF grant 1816627. We thank Ida Szubert and Clara Vania for helpful comments on previous drafts of this paper and Antonios Anastasopoulos for tips on experimental setup.
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