Amazon Alexa will introduce Canadian French language support soon, ITBusiness.ca has learned.

Amazon launched Alexa to the Canadian market in November 2017 along with its Echo and Echo Dot hardware. But it could only speak Canadian English at launch, leaving about one-fifth of the population that identifies as having a Canadian French mother tongue out of the picture. Competitor smart speaker Google Home launched in June 2017 supporting both Canadian English and French. Apple’s HomePod with the Siri smart assistant launched to Canada June 18 with Canadian English, saying Canadian French would be made available “later this year.”

Amazon launched Alexa in France at the beginning of June along with French language support. A Wired story details how Amazon used workers at french fulfillment centres to train Alexa’s AI model. But that Parisian French dialect isn’t usable in Quebec.

Amazon didn’t provide an interview to ITBusiness.ca, but said in a statement that it plans to ask some of its customers to help teach Canadian French to Alexa and “refine some other of her key features in advance of general availability to all of our customers.”

Guillaume Dufour is the founder of Alexa Quebec, an enthusiast user group of the smart speaker. He tried the new French (France) Alexa language on one of his five Echo devices, but was disappointed with the result.

“It is currently awful as a Quebecois,” he says. “Really, Alexa barely understands me even when I speak correct French, while my Google Home understands me even when I use a very strong accent.”

Even when attempting to imitate a Paris accent, Dufour struggles to complete even simple tasks with Alexa. So he’d rather just speak English instead, a language that he doesn’t consider himself fluent in. (Dufour opted for a written interview with ITBusiness.ca rather than a phone call.)

Amazon Alexa is still not available on retail store shelves in Quebec. That’s a result of language laws that require French packaging for products sold there, Dufour says. Even online orders are limited in some cases – for example, Best Buy doesn’t ship Echo devices to Quebec, but Amazon.ca does.

How Google’s French-language crash course worked for Assistant

So why was Google Home able to speak Canadian French at launch, while Alexa is still learning it? In a statement provided to ITBusiness.ca Google says the team “started from scratch and built a system specifically for Canadian French.”

Google worked with local language experts who built a curriculum to teach Assistant local grammar, accent, and pronunciation. Then groups of local Google employees and language experts tested the curriculum by feeding the Assistant training data. Natural language processing technology helps the Assistant improve its French chops over time.

Google also goes beyond language to consider aspects of the Assistant personality that will make it feel embedded in local culture. From understanding local landmarks to recognizing French parables, a “personality expert” at Google works to get it just right.

Amazon makes similar efforts for Alexa; for example, when set to French (France) language, Alexa will respond that its favourite movie is Steven Spielberg’s A.I., that it cheers for France during the World Cup, and so on.

It’s all about the data

Providing more insight into why Google Assistant proves more multi-lingually adept than Amazon Alexa is Michael Papish, the head of global product marketing from Sonos Inc. Sonos partners with both Amazon and Google, integrating their smart assistants into its premium speaker hardware.

“These days voice first services are a data problem and Google has way more data,” he says. Google may have launched Home “before it was completely ready and then played catch up with updates.”

In other words, it’s taken the iterative approach that Google is known for.

While Amazon has shopping data, its only source of voice data is from Alexa and the regions where Alexa is available. Google had voice data from many regions around the world thanks to its Android OS also offering Assistant.

Last year, Amazon released Cleo, an Alexa Skill that allows users to help it learn new languages. It offers a gamified approach, asking users to complete “levels” and rewarding them with badges.

At time of publication. Amazon Alexa supports U.S. English, U.K. English, Canadian English, English with an Australian or Indian accent, German, Japanese, and French (France). Amazon plans to continue to expand Alexa’s multi-lingual capabilities, including Spanish for Spain and Mexico, as well as Italian later this year.

Google has projected that Assistant will know more than 30 languages by the end of the year.

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