Why Can’t My Iphone Speak Spanglish?

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A lot of Texans switch back and forth between English and Spanish effortlessly, without even thinking about it. But if you’re typing on an iPhone, switching between the language keyboards mid-sentence is a big hassle. With more and more multilingual users, why isn’t one of the top smartphones up to the task?

Jennifer Kutz says she has some software that can help– it’s prediction keyboard called SwiftKey, that’s already on more than 250 million devices.

“The difference with SwiftKey is you can literally just start typing in one language or another assuming they have the same layout on your keyboard and the keyboard will understand and detect what language you’re typing in and adjust what word is coming next,” Kutz says.

Kutz says it takes some time for the keyboard to really adapt to the way the user speaks. But trying to get Siri – iPhone’s voice-to-text messenger– to work, is a whole other story. We spoke with Andrew Dillon, who teaches at the University of Texas School of Information, about why Siri isn’t better at this.

“With speech, there is this assumption that only intelligent creatures and intelligent beings can talk, and very quickly when you speak to most computerized applications you find out pretty quickly that they’re not that intelligent,” Dillon says.

What happens if you ask Siri why she doesn’t speak Spanglish?

“I’ve never really thought about it,” Siri responds.

John Roescher, a technology consultant in Austin, says Spanglish might not be too far off for our dear Siri.

“I think it’s fair to say that would be easy, relatively easy to incorporate, the intelligence that you build into it it’s obviously easy to do it one language, or another language only one at a time, but it’s not impossible to do it for both,” Roescher says.

So what’s stopping Siri? Roescher says that the failure in the tech industry is really a diversity issue, not at the programmer level, but with the higher-ups.

“A company could benefit from having more diverse decisions, or more diverse champions, for these ideas in their organization to even have the inspiration to make a case like this,” Roescher says.

If decision makers realized the market in the U.S. alone, for a bilingual operating system, the company could stand to make a lot of money. Almost 40 percent of Texans speak multiple languages, and a lot of us like to do it at the same time.

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