Multilingual Smart speakers in 2020
By Julia Pflüger | Voice User Interface Architect at VUI.agency | 20.07.2020
As a German person, I am used to having all kinds of user interfaces available in my own native language. Even though many devices, such as smart speakers, are first available on the English-language market, it usually does not take long for them to also arrive on the German market, featuring user interfaces that have been completely translated into German.
From a global perspective, not everyone of the almost eight billion people has the luxury of having user interfaces available in their own native language and this problem becomes even more prominent when looking at today’s most popular smart speakers. There is a total of 7,117 languages spoken in the world today, although there are 23 major languages that are spoken by a staggering 50% of the world’s population. Obviously, a brand deciding which languages they want their AI to learn would focus on these 23 languages due to the large number of potential users, but what about the people whose native language belongs to the remaining 7,094? In a world where voice technology seems to play an increasingly important role in the form of smart speakers, smart home devices, voice search, and voice shopping, it becomes equally important for people to gain proper access to this technology. And the only way to do that is by making sure that the voice assistant understands the user and the user understands the voice assistant in return.
In a foreign-language film, we usually have subtitles to help us understand what is being said, but no such help exists on a smart speaker – understanding what is being said is crucial here.
On today’s smart speaker market, Amazon’s Alexa devices and Google’s Home/Nest smart speakers are some of the most popular and best-selling devices, but their current language support seems rather underwhelming, especially compared to the voice assistants available on portable devices such as smartphones and tablets:
|Language||Amazon Alexa||Google Home/Nest|
Languages currently supported by Amazon Alexa and Google Home/Nest smart speakers (https://www.globalme.net/blog/language-support-voice-assistants-compared/)
In comparison, the Google Assistant available on Android devices supports many more languages compared to the speaker version, such as Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Tamil or Russian, which are high up on the list of languages with the most native speakers and even outrank some of the prominent European languages. iPhone’s Siri voice assistant also supports an impressive 21 languages.
Alexa’s language support obviously focuses on countries that have their own Amazon marketplace, but it is striking just how few languages are supported compared to how multilingual the world actually is. Noticeably missing, for instance, are the many African languages as well as various other Asian languages and, in Europe, the Scandinavian and Slavic languages. Even though Amazon currently holds the top spot for the highest number of smart speaker units sold worldwide (26.2% market share in 2019), additional language support will be one of the most important factors to ensure Alexa’s continuous success and growth on a global scale. Furthermore, it seems that both Amazon and Google largely ignore the Chinese smart speaker market which is mostly ruled by well-known Chinese tech companies such as Xiaomi, Baidu, and Alibaba. All three companies currently rank right after Google in the number of smart speakers sold worldwide, even though their products are only available in China.
But covering global languages is not the only linguistic challenge in the world of smart speakers: Even if a language is officially supported, there are usually plenty of national and regional varieties, dialects, and accents that divide users.
The most prominent example is the English language: You can offer any user interface in English, but you would need to choose one among the many varieties that exist in the world – US English, UK English, Canadian English, Australian English, New Zealand English, Indian English, Singaporean English (most of which are supported by both Alexa and Google smart speakers). And these are just some of the first-circle varieties of the English language. No matter which variety you end up choosing, there will always be English-speaking users who cannot fully identify with the language your user interface employs, which consequently reduces the user’s enjoyment and thus retention of your device. Especially in the world of voice assistants where language is at the very centre of your technology, this can be a particularly crucial challenge.
A similar problem exists in the German-speaking world which mostly covers the countries of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Superficially, all three countries speak German (perhaps among other official languages), but as every German person will be able to tell you – just because we all speak the same language on paper, it does not mean that we can easily understand each other. I certainly have lost track of how many times I failed to understand a Swiss or Austrian person and was convinced that Swiss or Austrian German was an entirely separate language from German German. And this is not just based on accent and the way individual sounds and words are pronounced, Swiss and Austrian German contain words that a German person does not use and vice versa. And the problem does not stop there, because even in one variety there is still a lot of variation on a regional and even societal level – just compare a Berlin dialect from Northern Germany to a Munich dialect from Southern Germany, for instance.
So why should we force a Swiss person to speak to a smart speaker in a variety they do not normally use, just because the speaker does not support their own local dialect?
I know that I personally would not use a voice assistant if I had to talk to it in Swiss German.
In order to tackle this particular problem, VUI.agency is currently working with Swiss telecommunications provider Swisscom on their “Hey Swisscom” voice assistant, which is able to understand and use Swiss German, among other languages that are spoken in Switzerland. The assistant is available on the Swisscom TV-Box and lets users control their TV functions and smart home devices as well as use the usual smart speaker functions, such as news and weather reports. And all this using a language they actually feel comfortable with.
Swisscom TV Box (swisscom.ch)
In summary, it is important for companies using voice technologies to develop language support for a wide variety of global languages and dialects. With the smart home and voice market growing continuously, brands would do well not to overlook the large part of the global population that does not speak English, Spanish, French or any of the other major European languages, despite the various challenges that language learning poses in the field of voice technology. Yes, teaching a voice assistant a new language is time-consuming and expensive and when deciding which new language to add, brands will obviously consider the number of potential users who will benefit from it. Still, the way to continuous success and growth in the voice technology and smart speaker market will have to include language support for as many global languages and varieties as possible, no matter how insignificant a language might seem from an economic point of view.