Voice assistants - multilingual robot helpers in your phone! (Image from freeimages.com)

You cannot be Siri-ous! Voice Assistants for Language Learning

Switching the language settings on your phone is a well-known trick for fast-tracking your language learning. But with constant improvement to Voice Assistant technology like Siri and Google Assistant, learners have something potentially even more exciting in their pockets: a mobile native speaker.

How can we take advantage of this ubiquitous technology? And how effective is it as a learning tool?

I road-tested the technique over the past few weeks using Siri in Norwegian on my iPhone. And above all, it has been a fun ride!

Behaviour change

The irony is that in spite of the widespread nature of the tech, Voice Assistants struggle to find a regular place in our lives. Barely a quarter of mobile users speak to their phone daily; 40% say they have never used the feature. Many of us leave the powerful technology of personalised AI unused, even in our native languages.

From my own personal experience, and that of family and friends, it seems that Voice Assistant apps are entertaining curios rather than serious tools. When was the last time you last asked your phone for something?

Given all this, just using Siri at all is a behaviour change for a lot of us. But that makes this technique something of a voyage of discovery, too. Just what can our clever smartphones actually do?

Vocab of the day-to-day

The answer: well, not quite everything, despite the grand claims. Siri and Google Assistant have a set of skills which focus very tightly on the organisation of the day-to-day. They are not as clever at more transactional, lengthy exchanges. So while they might not improve your general conversation skills, they provide an excellent language workout for weather, time and place vocabulary in particular.

Through experimenting with your phone, will find your own unique way to fit these specified skills of foreign language Voice Assistants into your life. For me, as a walker, the handiest phrases in my everyday have been:

  • What is the temperature today?
  • How is the weather today?
  • When is sunset today?

After repeated use of those, my Norwegian weather and time vocab is positively steaming! And the best thing? I typically hate practising number, time and date vocabulary in any language. That is the material I will skip first to get to the ‘meaty’ stuff as a learner. The novelty of using Siri in Norwegian has finally got me practising – and remembering – those essential phrases. Aiming to ask one or two of these questions daily makes for a good weekly plan tactic, too.

Using a Voice Assistant to practise speaking Norwegian

Using a Voice Assistant to practise speaking Norwegian

Thinking on your feet

Microchips are not perfect. Your voice assistant may not always understand you first time round. That goes especially for the early stages of language learning when our speech is less colloquial. But the upside to that? It is a stellar learning opportunity.

Misunderstandings with your digital assistant force you to practise rephrasing, an essential skill in speaking foreign languages. If it doesn’t work first time, say it again in a different way. It is just as valid with your Voice Assistant as with a flesh-and-blood native speaker.

Of course, this can be a challenge. After three attempts at finding out where the nearest supermarket is, desperation may creep in. But it does force you to be creative!

Have a little fun

Now, riveting conversation all this may not be. But that is not to say that there is no attempt on the part of the developers to add some personality spice. Who hasn’t said something silly to their Voice Assistant on the first encounter, just to elicit a funny response?

If you tire of the weather, try “do you like me?“, “are you happy?” or even “I love you” in the target language. The responses may be enlightening!

Translation station

As a side note, it may seem obvious, but don’t forget that Voice Assistant apps also offer direct translation capabilities. Learning the phrases for how do you say X in … and translate X into Y turn your phone into a quick dictionary tool. The catch: it might not be available in your target-native language pair (as is the case with Norwegian-English, unfortunately).

When Siri cannot translate.

“Hey Siri, how do you say ‘translate’ in English?” “I cannot translate from that language yet, but I can search for it on the Internet.”

Cross-language fail

As fun as this language learning technique is, it is not trouble-free. In particular, there are problems when languages cross over in our multilingual lives. For instance, you may need to accustom yourself to saying the names of family and friends phonetically, as if they were target language words. Otherwise, asking Norwegian Siri to call Aisling is going to result in a very blank digital stare.

Messaging functionality is also compromised due to this cross-language fail. I instructed Siri – in Norwegian – to send a text to a friend, then dictated the text in English. Predictably (easy to say now!), Siri tried to make sense of my message as Norwegian. I now have no idea what it was originally meant to say, but it caused a great deal of confusion at the other end!

A garbled text message from my Voice Assistant

What happens when your Norwegian Voice Assistant tries to send a text in English…

One-track language

The fact is that it is quite inconvenient to switch your Voice Assistant language settings all the time. So, if you want to take advantage of this technique, you will have to accept that certain things like text and calendar functions will be hampered – if not rendered completely impossible – while you are in learning mode.

Similarly, it is only practical to do this in one language at a time. In an ideal mobile world, I could speak all my languages to Siri and it would intelligently recognise and respond in the appropriate language. Alas, we are not quite there yet.

If you work around these stumbling blocks, you can eke a great deal of useful language practice from switching your Voice Assistant language. In fact, I’ve grown rather fond of mine; I might just leave it switched to Norwegian for the foreseeable!

At the heart of it is this: using a Voice Assistant in your foreign language is, quite simply, good fun. It is a moment of show-offy, giddy pride when family and friends hear me address Siri in a foreign language, for example. It is a badge of honour, a little show of skill that can boost motivation. And that is certainly worth the effort.

3 thoughts on “You cannot be Siri-ous! Voice Assistants for Language Learning

  1. Ronald says:

    Even though Siri doesn’t support multiple languages at the same time, the speech recognition setting for sending texts can be easily changed – we just need to change the keyboard’s language and press the microphone symbol.

    That’s not as straightfoward as just asking “Hey Siri text Friend ……”, but at least we still get to practice speaking in other languages as well eheh

    Hope Apple will make it available soon. It seems that Google Assistant already supports it…

  2. Richard West-Soley says:

    Thanks for the heads up about Google Assistant – I always tend to assume iOS and Android are level-pegging in terms of assistant functionality, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Google has pipped Apple in flexibility of the foreign language settings for the time being. Definitely worth digging out my old test Android phone for a play! 🙂

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