Recognizing The Filipino Accent

When Apple unveiled its latest iPhone 4S handset earlier this month, most of the talk was about Siri, an automated voice control system which can give directions or even advice to users simply by asking a question into the speaker. However, since the new phone went on sale there have been numerous reports of Siri either responding with a completely irrelevant answer or simply saying it does not understand. One early review noted its good performance in English, although it did confuse “4” and “for” at one point.

In a news release, the experience of the early iPhone 4S users in Singapore was no different. Siri was observed to have found that the Singaporean accent is pretty unique and its voice recognition system doesn’t quite pick up the nuance of how they speak English. Add the street and food names which are very local to them and you could surmise how confused Siri was when it tries to recognize the words it hears.

To solve the problem, Singapore Telecom (SingTel) developed a new app, DeF!ND, which will help Singaporeans who use “Singlish” – a localized form of English with words borrowed from Asian languages. SingTel said DeF!ND is a localized Siri-like application that is able to decipher uniquely Singaporean accents, names and locations.

I had not touched an iPhone 4S yet but I have a reservation as to how it will recognize the Filipino accent when we use Siri. English is our second language but we speak it with an accent entirely different from the way the Americans do. This is precisely the reason why the call centers have to train their Filipino recruits before they get the job that requires talking to Americans.

Out of curiosity and in order to know how the voice recognition technology had advanced since I knew about it 24 years ago, I downloaded and installed the free  Sonalight’s Text By Voice app from Android Market to my Samsung Galaxy 5 smartphone. I did get the app to work but my suspicion that it won’t be able to respond accurately to my English with Filipino accent got confirmed. Text By Voice can’t recognize how I pronounce most of the Filipino names in my phone book.

The Singaporean and my own testing experience on the voice recognition technology of today clearly show the need for current apps to be tweaked before it can be used by majority of Filipinos. Most of us speak English in accent different from that of the Americans for whom Siri, Text By Voice and other automated voice control systems were designed. This is a challenge to Filipino developers to make the technology usable by their countrymen.

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