Monday, May 5, 2008

Internationalization and Speech Technologies

The not-so-subtle truth is, of course, that we all speak English. Yet localization and internationalization are at once prerequisite and stumbling stone for many web-based endeavors.

In my own backyard, two examples illustrate the effect and need for of internationalization, respectively. German professional social network XING has internationally outperformed competitors like LinkedIn through early and aggressive internationalization. StudiVZ - the "German Facebook" has gained much of the student social network market before Facebook decided to release a German version of its web app, making this a tough-to-crack market.

Ironically, as these two examples underline, the need for localization remains in cases where the demands on usability are low (join group/contact person/send message) and the target audience can largely be expected to speak sufficient English (read this for an interesting take on the same issues and solutions in online gaming.) Moreover, localization is an effort far greater than providing an interface in the local language.

As one expects, localization and internationalization and speech technology are inextricably linked - in a sense developing speech technologies is internationalization. And using such technology in professional service projects is akin to building a internationalized web application. Here are some of the oddities I've observed while working with speech technologies in an international environment:

Translation is not enough. When you write software that speaks or wants to be spoken to, there is more at stake than providing interface text. Can you expect all your users to spell input when your system doesn't understand the raw speech input? Can you be sure that all your translated content will generate well-formed speech-synthesis output? Language and culture are sensitive issues, so a well-localized speech application must do more than provide translated user interface. Employing local staff is usually a minimum to building a speech application for a new market.

The cost shifts. Re-usability of resources from previous speech projects is usually low. So unlike localizing a web application, porting a speech application requires grunt work that you thought you had done the first time around. Moreover, speech applications in new languages almost always come with additional licensing burdens and questions about the appropriate technology partner. Expect to pay for things you didn't expect.

There is no long tail. The buy-in costs for developing a new language in almost any speech or language technology (recognition, synthesis, translation) remain constant. This makes every newly developed language a strategic decision and translates into a two-tier localization effort: one developing basic technologies, one employing such technology in professional service projects.
As an example, the world's most successful dictation software packages: Dragon Naturally Speaking ships in five flavors of English and six European languages. Philip's Speech Magic ships in 23 dialects of 11 languages. Both a far cry from world-coverage.
The enormous cost of development has a decided effect on developing speech technology for lesser-spoken languages. And it has posed a significant hurdle as well for open-source initiatives of speech technologies to provide such resources for free.

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