What is NLP?

NLP - What is Natural Language Processing?

Florian Zyprian

One of the most significant forms of artificial intelligence (AI) focused on analyzing and processing human language is Natural Language Processing (NLP). This technology enables machines to understand, interpret, and even respond to human language by analyzing complex speech patterns and structures.

The importance of NLP lies in its ability to revolutionize communication between humans and computers. By understanding human language, machines can more effectively respond to queries, provide information, and even have human-like conversations. This opens the door to a wide range of applications in various fields such as customer service, translation, data analysis, artistic creations and much more.

What is NLP?

NLP is computer science for human language.

Natural language processing (NLP) is an area of artificial intelligence (AI) that focuses on giving computers the ability to understand human speech in the form of text or spoken words the way humans do. The main goal of NLP is to enable machines to grasp the full meaning of human communication, including the intentions and emotions of the speaker or writer, and to respond appropriately.

What is NLP

Why is NLP so difficult?

Natural Language Processing (NLP) is a challenging discipline of Artificial Intelligence that deals with the interaction between computers and human language. The difficulties in implementing NLP lie in the complexity and irregularities of human language, as well as the importance of context and cultural aspects.

Human language is characterized by many irregularities such as homonyms, homophones, sarcasm, idioms, metaphors, grammar and usage exceptions, and variations in sentence structure. All these factors make it difficult to develop algorithms that can capture the exact meaning of text or speech data.

An important aspect of human language is context, which is critical to understanding the intended meaning of an utterance. NLP systems need to be able to look beyond word definitions and sequences to capture context, ambiguity, and other complex concepts related to communication.

Cultural aspects also play a significant role in the interpretation of language. Humor, sarcasm, and idioms can vary greatly from one culture to another. To develop a successful NLP system, data scientists and engineers must take these cultural differences into account and design models that address the cultural characteristics of a language.

An example of irony that illustrates the complexity of human language:

"Great weather today, isn't it?"

In this case, the question is asked while it is raining heavily and storming outside. In this case, the speaker expresses the opposite of what is literally said and uses irony to humorously convey his true opinion about the bad weather.

While humans can easily recognize this ironic remark, it is a challenge for machines to understand that the speaker here means the opposite of what is literally said.

In summary, NLP is a difficult task because human language is complex and irregular, context is crucial for understanding, and cultural aspects play a major role. To develop an effective NLP system, all these factors must be taken into account, which makes the task extremely challenging.

What technologies are used?

To understand human language, NLP combines various technologies and methods from different disciplines, such as:

  1. Computational Linguistics: This discipline is concerned with the rule-based modeling of human language. Here, grammars, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics are studied to enable computers to recognize the structure and meaning of language.
  2. Statistical Models: NLP uses statistical models to identify patterns and relationships in language data. These include methods such as Bayesian statistics, which allows the probability of the meaning of a word or phrase to be calculated based on observed data.
  3. Machine learning: In this area, algorithms and models are developed that can learn from large amounts of language data. Machine learning enables computers to recognize the relationships between words, phrases and sentences in texts without the need for explicit rules.
  4. Deep Learning: Deep Learning is a subfield of machine learning that focuses on artificial neural networks. These networks can recognize complex patterns in language data and are particularly effective at processing unstructured data such as that found in natural language. Models such as the Transformer Network or the GPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer) series are examples of successful deep learning approaches in the field of NLP.

How does NLP work?

The main techniques used in the text analysis used include:

  1. Text vectorization: This involves converting text into a numeric form that machines can understand. Methods such as Bag-of-Words, TF-IDF and word vectors (e.g. Word2Vec) are common approaches to text vectorization.
  2. Syntactic analysis: It deals with the structure and grammar of sentences and helps identify sentence parts such as subjects, objects, and verbs. Techniques such as parsing dependencies and constituents help identify the relationships between sentence parts.
  3. Semantic Analysis: It deals with the meaning of words and sentences. This includes tasks such as entity recognition, the assignment of synonyms and antonyms, and the analysis of sentence meanings using techniques such as Word Sense Disambiguation.
  4. Sentiment analysis: This involves classifying texts according to the polarity of opinion, e.g. positive, negative or neutral. This can be done at different levels, such as individual words, sentences or entire documents.

What is the difference between syntax and semantics?

Syntax and semantics are two fundamental aspects of natural language processing that help to better understand and interpret text.

Syntax simply explained

Syntax is the arrangement of words in a sentence so that they are grammatically correct and make sense. In simple terms, syntax is the rules that determine how words must be arranged in a sentence so that they are understandable.

Bad syntax:

Example: "Yesterday I went to the cinema."

In this example, the word order is messed up, and the sentence is grammatically incorrect, making it difficult to understand. The syntax here is poor.

Good syntax:

Example: "Yesterday I went to the movies."

In this example, the word order is correct, and the sentence is grammatically correct, which makes it easier to understand. The syntax here is good.

Semantics simply explained

Semantics is the part of linguistics that deals with the meaning of words, sentences, and texts. In simple terms, it is what words and phrases mean and how they are used together to convey a particular message or information.

An example of good semantics: sentence "The dog is chasing the cat." In this sentence, the words are clear and unambiguous, and it is easy to understand that the dog is the one chasing the cat.

An example of bad semantics: sentence, "The table eats the chair." In this sentence, the meaning is unclear and confusing because tables and chairs have no ability to eat. The choice of words and the way they are put together do not add up to a meaningful meaning.

While syntax refers to the arrangement of words in a sentence to form grammatically correct sentences, semantics deals with the meaning conveyed by a text.

Syntax and semantics for effective NLP systems

Both aspects are crucial for effective NLP systems to enable human-like text understanding and interactions.

Some techniques used in syntactic analysis are:

  1. Lemmatization: This involves reducing the various inflected forms of a word into a single base form to simplify analysis.
  2. Morphological segmentation: This technique divides words into their smallest meaning-bearing units called morphemes.
  3. Word segmentation: Here, a continuous text is divided into different units, such as words.
  4. Part-of-Speech Tagging: This process identifies the part-of-speech for each word in a sentence.
  5. Parsing: This technique analyzes the grammar of a given sentence.
  6. Sentence break: This sets sentence boundaries in a large piece of text.
  7. Stemming: In this method, inflected words are broken down into their root form.

Techniques used in semantic analysis include:

  1. Word sense disambiguation: this ability allows one to determine the exact meaning of a word based on its context, e.g., to distinguish whether "pen" is a writing implement or part of a hinge.
  2. Named entity recognition: This involves identifying words that can be classified into specific categories, such as people, organizations, or places.
  3. Natural language generation: this technique uses a database to determine the semantics behind words and generate new text, such as automatic summaries, news articles, or tweets.

By combining syntactic and semantic analysis techniques, NLP systems can better understand and interpret the content of texts, enabling more effective and useful applications in various fields such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and human communication.

Advantages of NLP over rule-based implementation

CriterionNLPRule based processing
Processing speedFast and efficient, enables real-time automationPossibly slower, depending on the complexity of the rules
AccuracyHigh, especially with machine learning and artificial intelligence.May vary depending on the quality of the rules established
FlexibilityCan be customized for different needs, e.g. complex, industry-specific language or ironyRather limited, based on established rules
Processing unstructured dataGood for processing large amounts of unstructured text dataMore difficult, because rules have to be created for every possible input
AdaptabilityCan be continuously improved through machine learning and experienceCustomizations require manual updating of rules
Human interactionLittle to no human interaction requiredMay require more human interaction and review
ScalabilityScalable and adaptable for growing data volumesPossibly less scalable, as rules need to be constantly updated and expanded

Application areas

Natural language processing (NLP) has made significant progress in recent years and is increasingly used in various applications and industries. Here are some examples of applications, companies and techniques in the field of NLP.

Natural language processing (NLP) is not limited to text analysis and processing, but can also be used in combination with image processing and other technologies to extract and process information from images, documents, and emails. Some applications of NLP in these areas are described below:

Image processing

  • Software: Konfuzio, Abbyy Finereader, Textract, Python OpenCV
  • Applications: Image descriptions, automatic alt text generation, OCR text recognition
  • Techniques: Computer Vision, Deep Learning, Text Generation In image processing, NLP can be used to describe image content and automatically generate alt text for images, which is important for accessibility and search engine optimization. NLP can also be used in combination with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to extract text from images and scanned documents and convert it into editable text.

Document processing

  • Software: Konfuzio, Abbyy Finereader, Python PyPDF
  • Applications: Text extraction, information retrieval, automatic categorization, document analysis
  • Techniques: OCR, Text Classification, Named Entity Recognition (NER), Relation Extraction In document processing, NLP can help streamline business operations by extracting, categorizing, and analyzing text and relevant information from documents. This enables efficient organization and storage of information, improves document discoverability, and supports decision making. NLP techniques such as Named Entity Recognition and Relation Extraction help identify specific entities and relationships within documents.

E-mail processing

  • Software: Konfuzio
  • Applications: Spam detection, automatic email categorization, prioritization, response generation.
  • Techniques: Text classification, clustering, sentiment analysis, text generation In email processing, NLP is used to make email handling more efficient and user-friendly. Through the Automatic categorization and prioritization of e-mails users can make better use of their time and focus on important messages. Spam detection, another application of NLP, helps improve cybersecurity by filtering out unwanted and potentially harmful emails. NLP can also be used to automatically generate email responses, which increases productivity and speeds up communication.

Translation programs

  • Software: Google Translate, DeepL, Microsoft Translator
  • Techniques: sequence-to-sequence models, neural machine translation (NMT), transformer architectures Translation programs such as Google Translate and DeepL use NLP to translate text from one language to another. These programs use advanced techniques such as neural machine translation and transformer architectures to improve the accuracy and context of translations.

Virtual assistants

  • Software: Apple (Siri), Amazon (Alexa), Google (Google Assistant), Microsoft (Cortana)
  • Techniques: speech recognition, intent detection, dialog management, response generation Virtual assistants use NLP to understand and respond to human speech commands. They use techniques such as speech recognition to convert spoken language into text and intent recognition to identify the intent behind commands. They then generate appropriate responses or actions using dialog management and response generation.

Sentiment analysis

  • Software: IBM (Watson Tone Analyzer), Salesforce (Einstein Sentiment Analysis), Google (Cloud Natural Language API).
  • Techniques: Text classification, sentiment scoring, deep learning Sentiment analysis tools use NLP to identify emotions, attitudes, and opinions in text. Companies use this information to analyze customer satisfaction, brand perception, and product recommendations. Techniques such as text classification and Deep Learning enable precise analysis of sentiment in texts.

Spam detection

  • Software: Google (Gmail), Microsoft (Outlook), Symantec (Email Security)
  • Techniques: Text classification, tokenization, feature extraction, machine learning Spam detection systems use NLP to automatically identify and filter out unwanted emails. Techniques such as text classification, tokenization and feature extraction are used to detect patterns and indicators of spam in emails.

Text summary

  • Software: OpenAI (GPT-3), Google (BERT), Salesforce (Einstein Summarization)
  • Techniques: Extractive Summary, Abstract Summary, Reinforcement Learning Text summarization tools use NLP to extract the most relevant content from large amounts of text and create concise summaries. Techniques such as extractive and abstract summarization are used, based on reinforcement learning and deep learning.


Natural language processing plays a critical role in improving the interaction between people and technology and streamlining business processes. NLP applications help companies gain valuable insights from text and speech data, increase employee productivity, and make business-critical operations more efficient. As a result, companies can make better decisions, improve customer satisfaction, and increase their competitiveness.

Some of the challenges in the field of NLP are the correct interpretation of ambiguities, irony, sarcasm, and cultural differences in language. Since language is constantly evolving and changing, NLP systems need to be continuously adapted and improved to keep up with these changes.

In the future, we can expect NLP to become more and more integrated into our daily lives and work environments. New applications and technologies are being developed to further improve the performance and accuracy of NLP systems. Some future developments could include, for example, improving machine translation for less common languages, creating personalized virtual assistants, and automated content creation.

In summary, natural language processing plays an important role in modern technology and has the potential to fundamentally change the way people interact with technology. With the continued improvement of NLP applications and techniques, this field is expected to continue to grow and have an ever-increasing impact on our lives and work environments.

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