Siri might have been one of the first voice assistants but with Amazon’s Alexa taking over the consumer home and Google’s Assistant superior conversational processing, Apple’s voice assistant has fallen behind. But Siri does have one capability that her rivals do not: the ability to speak 20 languages, and soon 21. Reuters reports that soon Siri will be able to speak Shanghainese, a dialect of Wu Chinese spoken only around Shanghai. By comparison, Microsoft’s Cortana speaks 8 languages, Google Assistant speaks 4 and Amazon’s Alexa is only fluent in English and German.
The Challenge and the Key to Going Global
Speaking different languages is a challenge for voice assistants as it’s more than just translating the actual words, accents and dialects must also be considered. It’s a complex process, as Alex Acero, head of the speech team at Apple explained it to Reuters:
At Apple, the company starts working on a new language by bringing in humans to read passages in a range of accents and dialects, which are then transcribed by hand so the computer has an exact representation of the spoken text to learn from. Then Apple deploys “dictation mode,” its text-to-speech translator, in the new language. When customers use dictation mode, Apple captures a small percentage of the audio recordings and makes them anonymous. The recordings, complete with background noise and mumbled words, are transcribed by humans, a process that helps cut the speech recognition error rate in half.
A painstaking process, but the language barrier is an important one to overcome for voice assistants if they are to become ubiqituos tools for consumers globally. While it may not be as flashy as some of the features Alexa and Google Assistant are capable of, Siri’s ability to converse in languages localized in 36 different countries is an important one. Especially when you consider that China alone makes up almost 33% of the smartphone market. Don’t count Siri out just yet.