Google in 1998
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Can GOOG-411/US conquer foreign accents?

Imagine an Indian, Frenchman or Chinese looking to call a local US business number using GOOG-411. Needless to say, it can become a very frustrating.

If we think of a Chinese English speaker, who often doesn’t pronounce the consonants in the word or the endings, trying to get the number of, say, Whole Foods in Palo Alto, he/she would have a problem.

Palo Alto could sound like ‘Pao Au(t)o’ and Whole Foods would be ‘Ho Foo, Holl Fooooo’, or some variation and when I tried it this way, the voice on the phone told me to “go back”  and basically try again, every time.

GOOG-411 is a service from Google that lets you get business phone numbers through any phone – for free. However, with a few exceptions, it is the information service (which is probably free because it is training the application in understanding many different voices), which is geared toward people who speak US English.

As we all know not all English speakers sound the same. I think that Google still has a long way to go until they can fit their model to the way our multi-cultural group of people in Silicon Valley and around the globe speak English. Or maybe Google will develop a variation of its service according to the country and accent of the people it is trying to reach?

It did launch a service in Canada where: “according to Google engineers, the service has been tweaked to offer “Canadian English.” “We incorporated some ‘Canadianisms’ such as ‘eh,’ ‘Traw-na,’ ‘Cal-gry,’ and, of course, ‘aboot,’” a blog post said.

Apparently Google and Microsoft are spending millions to attract users whose native language is other than English, so Indian English is probably one of their targets.

Mr. Ram Prakash said in the NY Times that “ Western technology companies have misunderstood the linguistic landscape of India, where English is spoken proficiently by only about a tenth of the population and even many college-educated Indians prefer the contours of their native tongues for everyday speech.”

GOOG-411 will either have to test its service for many years to come capture all the voice, language and dialect variations or limit GOOG-411 to the mainly English-speaking people who sound American. In the meantime, we can all have fun with business names it does offer us when we don’t have the right US intonation – even the British are not exempt (see web site for examples). Your own examples?

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