Bonjour, Alexa! How a virtual assistant learned to speak Canadian French
Amazon's voice assistant, Alexa, is being prepped to understand commands and pronunciation for a French-Canadian audience
MONTREAL – Last September, Hans Laroche embarked on an unusual teaching assignment. He and a few thousand fellow Quebecers were enlisted to help Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa learn the finer points of Canadian French, from the distinctive accent to so-called “joual” expressions and the linguistic mishmash known as “Franglais.”
With Amazon’s official release of its French Canadian language option for Alexa on March 21, the results are now available for all to hear.
Because Alexa’s algorithm requires a great deal of data, Laroche says he and his fellow testers were given a free Echo device and asked to interact with it on a regular basis by asking it questions, getting it to perform household tasks or using it to play music, audiobooks or news. Every week or two, they were asked to provide feedback to developers, who worked to further refine the algorithm and its language capabilities.
Laroche, who runs a Facebook page for Quebec Alexa enthusiasts from his home near Victoriaville, Que., said he was impressed with how well the device picked up on his requests.
“It was pretty surprising the things Alexa can understand, especially in Canadian French,” he said. “The French language from France has been available for a while, but it’s not the same as the language Quebecers use.”
As an example, he said Quebecers tend to use English verbs such as “check” or “cancel” rather than their French counterparts, “verifier” or “annuler.”
“If Alexa is in (European) French and I ask it to ‘cancel le timer,’ it won’t understand,” he said. “But if I’m in Canadian French and I say it, it will understand what I’m saying.”
Laroche noted that Amazon still has some catching up to do, since competitors such as Google Assistant already have French Canadian language support.
Nicolas Maynard, the man in charge of Alexa in Canada, said teaching the virtual assistant to understand French was a difficult challenge, due to the complexity of the language and the prevalence of homonyms, contractions, and a vocabulary that differs widely by region.
Adapting it to a French-Canadian audience meant ensuring it would understand commands delivered using local colloquialisms and pronunciations, he said in a phone interview from Seattle.
Maynard said that while French speakers in France use as many, or possibly more, English words than their North American linguistic counterparts, the inflection is very different.
“The pronunciation of English words in Quebec is much closer to the English pronunciation than in France,” said Maynard.
“If you ask a French person to say the name of an American song, you’ll clearly hear the French accent. But if you ask a Canadian (francophone), you’ll get a pronunciation that is very close to English.”
But while Alexa may understand local slang, its own voice was given an accent designed to be as neutral as possible while still being that of a Quebecer.
“I think it’s more or less a Montreal accent, but you’ll tell me,” Maynard said.
He said it was also important to ensure the voice service is equipped with general knowledge from each region by being able to answer basic questions about politics and culture.
As a result, Alexa can recite the poem “Le vaisseau d’or” by celebrated Quebec writer Emile Nelligan, and has a repertoire of jokes to tell on demand.
Laroche said he has noted a lot of improvement in this department since he first began interacting with the device.
“If you ask who is Montreal’s mayor, who is the prime minister of Canada, it knows the answer, which was not the case in the beginning,” he said.
He says the voice assistant is still not perfect, however, and there are still many times when it answers a question with “Je ne sais pas” (I don’t know.) But he’s still pleased to have a product that will start his coffee maker in the morning and turn on the equipment in his home gym when he announces he’s ready for a workout.
Guillaume Dufour, the founder of enthusiast group Alexa Quebec, was also an early user of the experimental “beta” version.
He was impressed with Alexa’s ability to understand mixed-language commands, such as when he asks it in French to play an English-language song. He said the virtual assistant understands his normal accent perfectly, although he sometimes has to repeat himself when he tries out the stronger accent of his native Charlevoix region.
“We can see that Amazon’s language recognition training was excellent,” said Dufour, an IT expert and programmer who also creates “skills” for the devices.
And he would know, having amassed an impressive collection of voice-activated assistants including four Echo devices, a Google Home, Apple HomePod and a Harman Kardon Invoke.
Dufour said he has noticed only one true “glitch” – the device sometimes delivers the weather report in a jumble of English and French – but he has found that some of Alexa’s jokes are told “in a slightly jerky intonation that does not quite follow the rhythm of the French language.”
As for Maynard, he said Alexa’s education is far from complete.
He won’t say how many Quebecers are currently using Echo or other Alexa devices, but he says the virtual assistant’s artificial intelligence-driven algorithm will continue to absorb new data and refine its capabilities the more it is used.
“I see the launch as just the beginning of my job,” he said.