Natural language is a phrase that encompasses human communication. The way that people talk and the way words are used in everyday life are part of natural language. Processing this type of natural language is a difficult task for computers, as there are so many factors that influence the way that people interact with their environment and each other. The rules are few and far between, and can vary significantly based on the language in question, as well as the dialect, the relationship of the people talking, and the context in which they are having the conversation.

Natural language processing (NLP)  is a type of computational linguistics that uses machine learning to power computer-based understanding of how people communicate with each other. NLP leverages large data sets to create applications that understand the semantics, syntax, and context of a given conversation.

Natural language processing is an essential part of many types of technology, including voice assistance, chat bots, and improving sentiment analysis. NLP analytics empowers computers to understand human speech in text and/or written form without needing the person to structure their conversation in a specific way. They can talk or type naturally, and the NLP system interprets what they’re asking about from there.

Machine learning is a type of artificial intelligence that uses learning models to power its understanding of natural language. It’s based off of a learning framework that allows the machine to train itself on data that’s been input. It can use many types of models to process the information and develop a better understanding of it. It’s able to interpret both standard and out of the ordinary inquiries. Due to its continual improvements, it’s able to handle these edge cases without getting tripped up, unlike a strict rules-based system.

Natural language processing brings many benefits to an organization that has many processes that depend on natural language input and output. The biggest advantage of NLP technology is automating time-consuming processes, such as categorizing text documents, answering basic customer support questions, and gaining deeper insight into large text data sets.

Is Natural Language Processing Machine Learning?

It’s common for some confusion to arise over the relationship between natural language processing and machine learning. Machine learning can be used as a component in natural language processing technology. However, there are many types of NLP machines that perform more basic functionality and do not rely on machine learning or artificial intelligence. For example, a natural language processing solution that is simply extracting basic information may be able to rely on algorithms that don’t need to continually learn through AI.

For more complex applications of natural language processing, the systems are using machine learning models to improve their understanding of human speech. Machine learning models also make it possible to adjust to shifts in language over time. Natural language processing may be using supervised machine learning, unsupervised machine learning, both, or neither alongside other technologies to fuel its applications.

Machine learning can pick up on patterns in speech, identify contextual clues, understand the sentiment behind a message, and learn other important information about the voice or text input. Sophisticated technology solutions that require a high-level of understanding to hold conversations with humans require machine learning to make this possible.

Machine Learning vs. Natural Language Processing (NLP)

You can think of machine learning and natural language processing in a Venn diagram that has many pieces in the overlapping section. Machine learning has many useful features that help with the development of natural language processing systems, and both of them fall under the broad label of artificial intelligence.

Organizations don’t need to choose one or the other for development that involves natural language input or output. Instead, these two work hand-in-hand to tackle the complex problem that human communication represents.

Supervised Machine Learning for Natural Language Processing and Text Analytics

Supervised machine learning means that the system is given examples of what it is supposed to be looking for so it knows what it is supposed to be learning. In natural language processing applications and machine learning text analysis, data scientists will go through documents and tag the important parts for the machine.

It is important that the data fed into the system is clean and accurate, as this type of machine learning requires quality input or it is unable to produce the expected results. After a sufficient amount of training, data that has not been tagged at all is sent through the system. At that point, the machine learning technology will look at this text and analyze it based on what it learned from the examples.

This machine learning use case leverages statistical models to fuel its understanding. It becomes more accurate over time, and developers can expand the textual information it interprets as it learns. Supervised machine learning does have some challenges when it comes to understanding edge cases, as natural language processing in this context relies heavily on statistical models.

While the exact method that data scientists use to train the system varies from application to application, there are a few core categories that you’ll find in natural language processing and text analytics.

  • Tokenization: The text gets distilled into individual words. These “tokens” allow the system to start by identifying the base words involved in the text before it continues processing the material.
  • Categorization: You teach the machine about the important, overarching categories of content. The manipulation of this data allows for a deeper understanding of the context the text appears in.
  • Classification: This identifies what class the text data belongs to.
  • Part of Speech tagging: Remember diagramming sentences in English class? This is essentially the same process, just for a natural language processing system.
  • Sentiment analysis: What is the tone of the text? This category looks at the emotions behind the words, and generally assigns it a value that falls under positive, negative, or neutral standing.
  • Named entity recognition: In addition to providing the individual words, you also need to cover important entities. For some systems, this refers to names and proper nouns. In others, you’ll need to highlight other pieces of information, such as hashtags.

Unsupervised Machine Learning for Natural Language Processing and Text Analytics

Unsupervised machine learning does not require data scientists to create tagged training data. It doesn’t require human supervision to learn about the data that is input into it. Since it’s not operating off of defined examples, it’s able to pick up on more out-of-the-box cases and patterns over time. Since it’s less labor intensive than a supervised machine learning technique, it’s frequently used to analyze large data sets and broad pattern recognition and understanding of text.

There are several types of unsupervised machine learning models:

  • Clustering: Text documents that are similar are clustered into sets. The system then looks at the hierarchy of this information and organizes it accordingly.
  • Matrix factorization: This machine learning technique looks for latent factors in data matrices. These factors can be defined in many ways, and are based on similar characteristics.
  • Latent Semantic Indexing: Latent Semantic Indexing frequently comes up in conversations about search engines and search engine optimization. It refers to the relationship between words and phrases so that it can group related text together. You can see an example of this technology in action whenever Google suggests search results that include contextually related words.

Deep Learning

Another phrase that comes up frequently in discussions about natural language processing and machine learning is deep learning. Deep learning is artificial intelligence technology based on simulating the way the human brain works through a large neural network. It’s used to expand on learning algorithms, deal with data sets that are ever-increasing in size, and to work with more complex natural language use cases.

It gets its name by looking deeper into the data than standard machine learning techniques. Rather than getting a surface-level understanding of the information, it produces comprehensive and easily scalable results. Unlike machine learning, deep learning does not hit a wall in how much it can learn and scale over time. It starts off by learning simple concepts and then builds upon this learning to expand into more complicated ones. This continual building process makes it possible for the machine to develop a broad range of understanding that’s necessary for high-level natural language processing projects.

Deep learning also benefits natural language processing in improving both supervised and unsupervised machine learning models. For example, it has a functionality referred to as feature learning that is excellent for extracting information from large sets of raw data.

NLP Machine Learning Techniques

Text mining and natural language processing are related technologies that help companies understand more about text that they work with on a daily basis. The importance of text mining can not be underestimated. The type of machine learning technique that a natural language processing system uses depends on the goals of the application, the resources available, and the type of text that’s being analyzed. Here are some of the most common techniques you’ll encounter.

Text Embeddings

This technique moves beyond looking at words as individual entities. It expands the natural language processing system’s understanding by looking at what surrounds the text where it’s embedded. This information provides valuable context clues about the situation in which the word is being used, whether its meaning is changed from the base dictionary definition, and what the user means when they are using it.

You’ll often find this technique used in deep learning natural language processing applications, or those that are addressing more complex use cases that require a better understanding of what’s being said. When this technique looks for contextually relevant words, it also automates the removal of text that doesn’t further understanding. For example, it doesn’t need to process articles such as “a” and “an.”

One representation of text embeddings technique in action is with predictive text on cell phones. It’s attempting to predict the next word in the sequence, which it’s only able to do by identifying words and phrases that appear around it frequently.

Machine Translation

This technique allows NLP systems to automate the translation process from one language to another. It relies on both word-for-word translations and those that are able to identify and get context to facilitate accurate translations between languages. Google Translate is one of the most well-known use cases of this technique, but there are many ways that it’s used throughout the global marketplace.

Machine learning and deep learning can improve the results by allowing the system to build upon its base understanding over time. It might start out with a supervised machine learning model that inputs a dictionary of words and phrases to translate and then grows that understanding through multiple data sources. This evolution over time allows it to pick up on speech and language nuances, such as slang.

Human language is complex and being able to produce accurate translations requires a powerful natural language processing system that can work with both the base translation and contextual cues that lead to a deeper understanding of the message that is being communicated. It’s the difference between base translation and interpretation.

In a global marketplace, having a powerful machine translation solution available means that organizations can address the needs of the international markets in a way that scales seamlessly. While you still need human staff to go through the translations to correct errors and localize the information for the end user, it takes care of a substantial part of the heavy lifting.


One of the most common contexts that natural language processing comes up in is conversational AI, such as chatbots. This technique is focused on allowing a machine to have a naturally flowing conversation with the users interacting with it. It moves away from a fully scripted experience by allowing the bot to create a more natural sounding response that fits into the flow of the conversation.

Basic chatbots can provide the users with information that’s based on key parts of the input message. They can identify relevant keywords within the text, look for phrases that indicate the type of assistance the user needs, and work with other semi-structured data. The user doesn’t need to change the way they typically type to get a relevant response.

However, open-ended conversations are not possible on the basic end of things. A more advanced natural language processing system leveraging deep learning is needed for advanced use cases.

The training data used for understanding conversations often comes from the company’s communications between customer service and the customers. It provides broad exposure to the way people talk when interacting with the business, allowing the system to understand requests made in a wide range of conversational styles and dialects. While everyone reaching out to the company may share a common language, their verbiage, slang, and writing voice can be drastically different from person to person.

Sentiment Analysis

Knowing what is being communicated depends on more than simply understanding the words being said. It’s also important to consider the emotions behind the conversation. For example, if you use natural language processing as part of your customer support processes, it’s important to know whether the person is frustrated and experiencing negative emotions. Sentiment analysis is the technique that brings this data to natural language processing.

The signs that someone is upset can be incredibly subtle in text form, and requires a lot of data about negative and positive emotions in text-based form. This technique is useful when you want to learn more about your customer base and how they feel about your company or products. You can use sentiment analysis tools to automate the process for going through customer feedback from surveys to get a big picture view of their feelings.

This type of system can also help you sort responses into those that may need a direct response or follow-up, such as those that are overwhelmingly negative. It’s an opportunity for a business to right wrongs and turn detractors into advocates. On the flip side, you can also use this information to determine people who would be exceptional customer advocates, as well as those who could use a little push to end up on the positive side of the sentiment analysis.

The natural language processing system uses an understanding of smaller elements of the text to get to the meaning behind the text. It automates a process that can be incredibly painstaking to try to do manually.

Question Answering

Natural language processing is really good at automating the process of answering questions and finding relevant information by analyzing text from multiple sources. It creates a quality user experience by digging through the data to find the exact answer to what they’re asking, without requiring them to sort through multiple documents on their own or find the answer buried in the text.

The key functions that NLP must be able to perform in order to answer questions include: understanding the question being asked, the context it’s being asked in, and the information that best addresses the inquiry. You’ll frequently see this technique used as part of customer service, information management, and chatbot products.

Deep learning is useful for this application, as it can distill the information into a contextually relevant answer based on a wide range of data. It determines whether the text is useful for answering the inquiry, and the parts that are most important in this process.

Once it goes through this sequence, it then needs to be assembled in natural language so the user can understand the information.

Text Summarization

Data sets have reached awe-inspiring sizes in the modern business world, to the point where it would be nearly impossible for human staff to manually go through the different information to create summaries of the data. Thankfully, natural language processing is capable of automating this process to allow organizations to derive value from these big data sets.

There are a few aspects that text summarization needs to address with the use of natural language processing. The first is that it needs to understand and recognize the parts of the text that are the most important to the users accessing it. The type of information that is most-needed from a document would be drastically different for a doctor and an accountant.

The information must be accurate and presented in a form that is short and easy to understand. Some real-world examples of this technique in use include automated summaries of news stories, article digests that provide a useful excerpt as a preview, and the information that is given in alerts in a system.

The way this technique works is by scanning the document for different word frequencies. Words that appear frequently are likely to be important to understanding the full text. The sentences that contain these words are pulled out as the ones that are most likely to produce a basic understanding of the document, and it then sorts these excerpts in a way that matches the flow of the original.

Text summarization can go a step further and move from an intelligent excerpt to an abstract that sounds natural. The latter requires more advanced natural language processing solutions that can create the summary and then develop the abstract in natural dialogue.

Attention Mechanism

Attention in the natural language processing context refers to the way visual attention works for people. When you look at a document, you are paying attention to different sections of the page rather than narrowing your focus to an individual word. You might skim over the text for a quick look at this information, and visual elements such as headings, ordered lists, and important phrases and keywords will jump out to you as the most important data.

The Attention mechanism techniques build on the way people look through different documents. It operates on a hierarchy of the most important parts of the text while placing lesser focus on anything that falls outside of that primary focus. It’s an excellent way of adding relevancy and context to natural language processing. You’ll find this technique used in machine translation and creating automated captions for images.

Are you ready to see what natural language processing can do for your business? Contact us to learn more about our powerful sentiment analysis solutions that provide actionable, real-time information based on user feedback.