Alexa Adds Multilingual Mode for Bilingual Homes
Amazon is giving its Alexa voice assistant the ability to distinguish between languages and respond in kind with its new multilingual mode. Alexa will be able to detect and answer in English and either Spanish, French, or Hindi depending on the speaker’s location.
Bilingual Home, Bilingual Voice Assistant
Multilingual mode is aimed specifically at bilingual homes where two languages are frequently used at the same time. Until now, Alexa could only understand and speak one language at a time, and switching to another language requires adjusting the settings in the Alexa app. In multilingual mode, Alexa can respond to a question in the language it is asked. The setting comes in pairs based on country. For now, it is limited to English and Spanish in the U.S., English and French in Canada, and English and Hindi in India. More languages are currently in the works, according to Amazon.
Starting with those three has some clear logic behind it. According to the Census, 13.4% of Americans can speak Spanish, more than half of the 21.8% of Americans who can speak a language other than English. In Canada, French is the second official language, along with English, and plenty of Canadians learn to speak both. Meanwhile, while English is widely spoken in Indian cities, Hindi is spoken by more people than any other language in India.
New Languages, Expanding Markets
Alexa is playing catch-up to Google Assistant in multilingual ability. Google Assistant added bilingual support a year ago, initially for English, French, and German. Now, Google Assistant can simultaneously support any two of the languages it offers, including regional dialects of the same language. The complexity of this feature may be why Google has been unique among voice assistants in offering bilingual support until now.
Being able to parse and respond to two different languages at once is a technical feat well beyond adding a new language option. It’s akin to running two voice assistant software models at the same time through just one system. That so many people can speak and understand multiple languages is a testament to the human brain, especially at a very early age, when it can absorb multiple languages with ease.
New languages have been added to Alexa’s list at a steady clip recently. Amazon announced that Alexa could now speak both Hindi and the English and Hindi hybrid Hinglish only a month ago. Then, Alexa added Portuguese to its language list a couple of weeks after that as part of the voice assistant’s arrival in Brazil. Like the bilingual support, Alexa is about a year behind Google Assistant when it comes to including these languages as options. That doesn’t mean Alexa can’t grab more of the respective markets, however. Alexa-powered smart speakers are the majority brand in India, with nearly two-thirds of the market according to a report in March from IDC. And, it’s crucial to remember that Alexa is only one part of Amazon’s strategy to build its presence in both countries, in combination with new and expanded e-commerce products and services.