Da Shen


Benchmarking Language Models for Code Syntax Understanding
Da Shen | Xinyun Chen | Chenguang Wang | Koushik Sen | Dawn Song
Findings of the Association for Computational Linguistics: EMNLP 2022

Pre-trained language models have demonstrated impressive performance in both natural language processing and program understanding, which represent the input as a token sequence without explicitly modeling its structure. Some prior works show that pre-trained language models can capture the syntactic rules of natural languages without finetuning on syntax understanding tasks. However, there is limited understanding of how well pre-trained models understand the code structure so far. In this work, we perform the first thorough benchmarking of the state-of-the-art pre-trained models for identifying the syntactic structures of programs. Specifically, we introduce CodeSyntax, a large-scale dataset of programs annotated with the syntactic relationships in their corresponding abstract syntax trees. Our key observation is that pre-training on massive code data does not result in decent code syntax understanding. In fact, these pre-trained programming language models fail to match the performance of naive baselines based on positional offsets and keywords. We also present a natural language benchmark to highlight the differences between natural languages and programming languages in terms of understanding corresponding syntactic structures. Our findings point out key limitations of existing pre-training methods and suggest the importance of modeling syntactic structures for the programming language.