Hello Alexa and Siri, do you speak Welsh?

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About a year ago I met with a senior executive from Amazon TV in London, we were meeting to discuss the possibility of getting S4C on to the platform, the conversation developed in to a discussion about Amazon’s audience growth strategy: on the Black Friday before Christmas 2015 over 100,000 Amazon Fire TV devices were shipped in one day. Amazon, slightly differently to Netflix, make more of an effort to target families, therefore their devices are in more households where children are present.

But the fact that stayed with me following the meeting was that up to 80% of content searches are conducted by voice, eighty percent….

I live in a household where Welsh and English live side by side, our main device for accessing content is Apple TV and through this the three primary “channels” are Netflix, NowTV and YouTube. We have access to terrestrial via a freesat box, but this only used occasionally. The remote for the Apple TV has a voice button, and I’m finding myself using this more and more. The girls, especially the eldest who is 8, use it regularly to discover content.

So why is this important? On the 20th of January I was present at the Pontio Centre for a conference discussing technology and the Welsh language organised by Canolfan Bedwyr. Voice recognition was prominent on the agenda.

An example of the challenges we are facing can be seen here in this short video from Llio Angharad where she asks Alexa about the longest place name in Europe:

https://twitter.com/llioangharad/status/817295241707474944

Taking the above in to consideration the ability to search and control is already established in a number of households, this will be the norm from now on. In households where the Welsh language is present the challenges are twofold, firstly discovering Welsh language content is difficult if nigh on impossible. Secondly it means the status of the Welsh language within these households is downgraded.

So what’s needed to secure the Welsh languages place in this incredibly important digital space?

It would be great if Alexa and Siri and any other voice recognition platform offered Welsh as an out of the box option, but unfortunately the Welsh language is quite a way down the list of commercial priorities for these multinational behemoths. Alexa, via the Amazon Echo device, can only be commanded in English and German. Siri supports 20 languages and it was only comparatively recently it added support for Finnish and Norwegian, two substantive languages. We have to also remind ourselves that it’s the company NUANCE that provides the voice recognition engine for SIRI, not Apple themselves.

The fact of the matter is time is against us, we need a solution and we need it ASAP. We need to shoulder the burden of creating the relevant linguistic corpora and creating the necessary language packs, we need to recognise the excellent work Canolfan Bedwyr has achieved in this field thus far. If we can offer companies ready made solutions it will make the process of offering Welsh language support much easier.

The reality however is that it’s unlikely that these multinationals will offer support for the Welsh language until they see the commercial benefits for them as businesses.

The best way, and the quickest, to solve this issue is to create an interface, an App that can sit between the user and the device, an App that translates from Welsh in to English communicates with the device and responds without the user being aware.

Is there room for closer co-operation with other minority languages? This is a challenge common to many smaller languages, together we can make a strong economic case……

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