Stephen Louw

Do they do foreign accents?

Using fun technology to help student pronunciation

Two Scotsmen walk into a voice activated elevator. The elevator is American (by the sounds of her accent), and what happens next is a hilarious parody of our current relationship with modern technology.

It's all fun and giggles, of course, but the parody is not too far from the truth: I'm pretty sure we've all come across instances of trouble along these lines, like this guy and his GPS 

In the science fiction movies of yesteryear, computers never had a problem understanding people. KITT had no problem with David Hasselhoff, and others like HAL9000 and the Ship's Computer (capital letters, I think) in Star Trek did just fine with everyone who spoke to them. Maybe we are still getting there, but as the Scotsmen video implies, some of the problem might lie with pronunciation.

As a South African I've had my fair share of trouble getting machines (and people, admittedly) to understand me. In Siri's early days, my American friends had little difficulty getting their phones to understand them, but she (?) really struggled with my South African accent. I sound quite clear to myself, but Siri just couldn't quite get what I was saying. For example, in an attempt to engage Siri in banter, I would say "I want to hear a joke, Siri" and she'd transcribe something along the lines of:

Or won't to he a joke, Siri.

For those of you familiar with the exotic beauty of the South African accent, you'll get that Siri also had a lot of trouble with my rendition of 'ice-cream', and my request for Eric Clapton's song 'In my father's eyes' became something quite unwholesome.

The embarrassment at not being understood by my phone, however, was shared by other non-Americans. Siri, listen to this New Zealander:

He wint to git some fush and chups.

As for the typical Australian invitation, Siri heard:

Want to come random my place for Bobby on Sunday?

Siri has since been taught to deal with South Africans (and some others), and now even has a South African Siri voice. Ya. In a way, it's a pity, because it was quite fun playing with Siri and seeing, visually, how easily I could be misunderstood. In fact, Siri's mis-transcription of my speech was instructive in terms of how non-South African listeners hear me.

All of this has an interesting classroom application. How does the voice recognition technology do with our students' pronunciation'? Because of way the speech recognition technology diligently transcribes sounds, the virtual assistants like Siri and Google Assistant that students have in their phones offer an interesting way for students to get feedback on how they are pronouncing their words in English.

For example, in one recent article, Shannon McCrocklin from the University of Texas reports how she got her students to use the virtual assistants in their phones to monitor their speech for pronunciation issues. McCrocklin's focus was on using this technology to raise students' autonomy, that is getting them to work on their pronunciation independently of the teacher.

She got her students to say minimal pairs to the their phones. Minimal pairs are two words which are identical except in respect to a single sound, like ten-then or arrive-alive. In this study, McCrocklin had minimal pairs focusing on vowel differences, like teen-tin and heart-hot. The students also read sentences like 'Mr. Reed wants the paper by three'.

It's quite clever. Getting students to dictate these minimal pairs and sentences to their phones gave them useful feedback about their intelligibility, and what they sound like when they speak English.

Try, for example, to get your students to ask their virtual assistant a question like 'Which writer wrote Westworld?' or 'Can you add broccoli to my shopping list?' like the guys do in this comparison video

It can be frustrating for the students when their speech isn't understood by the assistants, but the feedback is very helpful. As one student in McCrocklin's study reports, 'When I say a word, I think to myself it is right but in fact I am wrong'.

Anyone of us who has tried to study a tonal language will know this feeling well. In fact, these dictation functions are available in other languages as well so if you are studying Thai, see if the computer can understand you when you speak to it.

Try saying, in Thai, 'The horse and the dog come' (ม้าและหมามา) or 'New silk doesn't burn' (ไหมใหม่ไม่ไหม้). How much more nerdy can fun get?


I only read the title but I've made this suggestion to students for a few years now. Nothing new here, move along...

By Jack Daniels, Big Mango (10th December 2017)

Great, and exclude the students who don't have either the capability on their phone or no phone at all?

You need to be very careful with the use of what technology you expect students to have.

By Steve C, bangkok (10th December 2017)

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