Learning French with Alexa

My experience using the Amazon AI’s multilingual mode

Photo of Amazon Echo Dot 2, on coffee table with books

Amazon introduced a multilingual mode to its Alexa AI in 2019, starting in three countries: Canada, India, and the United States. Since late 2019, I have been interacting with Alexa in both Canadian French and English, switching back and forth from one sentence to the next without changing any setting.

The multilingual mode is perhaps more precisely called a bilingual mode, since in every case it is two languages. One of those languages is always English. Spanish is paired with English in the States, Hindi in India, and French in Canada. More recently, Amazon added support for Japanese-English and German-English multilingual modes, and expanded French and Spanish multilingual support beyond Canada and the United States.

New internet-based technologies, devices, software, and services have enabled remarkable new tools for language learning. Mobile apps such as Duolingo provide an interactive, multimedia, gamified learning experience that can be an effective introduction to a language and tool for moving into an intermediate level. Radio, podcasts, video, online news, media from around the world means there is lots of content in different languages out there for intermediate and advanced learners to access. My experience with Alexa suggests that interactive Artificial Intelligence will be a powerful new language learning tool going forward.

As I wrote in, 11 reasons to study French in 2019, I became fluent in French in 2018. Alexa fills a big gap in maintaining that French fluency. As an Anglophone living in an English-speaking part of Canada, I otherwise do not often speak French in my day-to-day life. My attempts to maintain fluency in Canada’s other official language rely on listening to French-language radio and podcasts, reading news and easy short novels, and occassionally posting on social media. My comprehension is strong, writing is correct if slow, but as a speaker I am halting and out of practice. Enter Alexa.

Enter Alexa Multilingual

Before Amazon introduced its French-English multilingual mode in late 2019, I occasionally switched the device language to French. It is the multilingual mode that really works for me, however. I can intereact in French much of the time, and switch to English for occasional convenience, speed, or when precision is required (such as adding an event to my Google Calendar)

Multilingual mode gives me access to more media and skill options. My Alexa Flash Briefing contains a mix of French and English-language media sources, including Radio-Canada, BBC World, and the New York Times. I wish there were more international French-language options available in Canada, such as RFI (Radio France International), as there are English language services like BBC world. French-language international stations are available via various Radio skills, but their content is mostly not available as part of the Alexa Flash briefing in Canada.

Echo Dot 3 on marble coffee table, with potted plants

Home assistant AI like Alexa, Siri, and Google Home can sometimes have trouble understanding even under the best conditions. The truth is, having Alexa set to French monolingual mode was slightly too inconvenient, too slow, too much mental energy and frustration. I tried it for a few weeks before the multilingual mode appeared, and again more recently since the feature debuted. I would occasionally get tripped up on some word or pronounciation and find myself asking the same thing several times with different wording until getting it right. Alexa’s unforgiving precision humbled me by pointing out the limitations of my fluency.

The multilingual mode lets me say it in English if I cannot make myself understood in French. It does add a complicating element, however. Listening for two languages, Alexa is more likely to misunderstand. For example, Alexa will listen to a statement and make a decision about whether I am speaking English or French, and will respond in the appropriate language. Occasionally, Alexa makes an incorrect determination, and gets the language I am speaking wrong, responding in the other language.

Typically, not recognizing the language I am speaking happens when I am attempting to speak French. There are many similar words between French and English, and perhaps because of my accent, Alexa recognizes English-sounding words and responds in English. When this happens, the results may be totally off, or may be partial misunderstanding, understanding the general topic but not the specific request.

For example, I might ask Alexa, “Quelle est la population en Luxembourg?” And the response might be appropriate but in English, because I prounounced the city name and the word population with an English accent, or Alexa only heard those words clearly. Or Alexa might give me a general description of the country of of Luxembourg in English “according to Wikipedia” without 100% understanding my request. Or Alexa might completely misunderstand and give me information about a Spotify playlist whose title is a garbled phonetic approximation of what I said. These are the sorts of misunderstanding that can happen.

“It’s not a bug, it’s a feature”

There is a saying in software development, “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.” The phrase is a way to spin software that is not working as someone desires. There is some truth to the statement, however. There are cases where an important security feature might impose a restriction that is interpreted by the end user as a bug. In other cases, something that seems like a problem might have unexpected benefits, or any solution that might be implimented would create far worse unavoidable headaches.

Alexa has some trouble understanding me in French, and perhaps especially when the multilingual mode is activated. The ‘feature’ of this ‘bug’ as a language learner is that it disciplines my pronounciation; I have to be quite precise when I speak. Certain French words I pronounced in ways that Alexa could not understand, and this encouraged me to discipline my accent and pronounciation.

Interacting with Alexa in French is teaching me how to say things quickly, efficiently, in a gramattically orthodox way, and with proper pronouncation. Doing this in a way a home assistant AI can understand can sometimes be a challenge even in a person’s first language. Interacting with a home assistant AI, I am using less familiar words and interacting in new ways. I do not think I had ever said in French the phrase, “set a timer” before using Alexa.

Speaking of setting a timer. Numbers in many languages require especially precise pronounciation. Think of English, and the common occurance of mixing up the numbers 15 and 50, or 16 and 60 when spoken. Fast facility with numbers is a challenge for many L2 learners of English, in my experience. Pronouncation mix ups with numbers are likewise common in French. French numbers can furthermore sometimes seem complicated or unintiutive for native English speakers. The number 97 is prounced quatre-vingt dix-sept, literally ‘four-twenty ten-seven’, as an example. All this is to say, using Alexa in French gives me practice with saying and pronouncing numbers quickly and precisely.

We’re Both Still Learning

Although I would say Alexa and I both know French fluently, we’re both still learning the language. Using Alexa helps point out limitations or weak points in my French fluency. I can also see limitations in Alexa’s French language support and its French-English multilingual mode. It seems clear that Alexa’s first language is English, as is mine.

In the case of misunderstandings, Alexa defaults more often to English. There are many reasons why this might be the case, and some of it involves media content Alexa is accessing such as a Spotify playlists. My backend accounts (Google, Amazon, Any.do) and connected devices are a mix of English and French settings. Alexa’s tendency to veer towards English may partly be a reflection of my own profile, and specifically my accent as a native English speaker. Nevertheless, Alexa seems slightly more comfortable operating in English. My perception is that Alexa veers in the direction of defaulting slightly more often to English, beyond what is caused by my own personal profile.

A powerful language learning tool

Ultimately, Alexa’s English-French multilingual mode has been very useful in helping me maintain my facility French, especially spoken French. My experience suggests that AI home assistant technology can be a powerful language learning tool. My expectation is that such tools will become more powerful going forward. Alexa’s multilingual modes and support for additional languages will improve and become more sophisticated as people use these services. I am going to keep using the French-English multilingual mode with my Alexa devices.

Writer, editor, college professor, software developer, stand-up comic, based in Hamilton, Canada.

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