Bonjour, Alexa! How a virtual assistant learned to speak Quebec French
A few thousand Quebecers signed on to help the device learn the finer nuances of local lingo
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 Quebec 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 the other 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.
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.
No easy task
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.
While Alexa may understand local slang, its own voice was given an accent designed to be as neutral as possible.
"I think it's more or less a Montreal accent, but you'll tell me,'' Maynard joked.
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.