While most iPhone users I know love talking to Siri–and especially enjoy making her say funny things–the iPhone-based human-like assistant seems even more human in having a flawed, sometimes divisive personality. Criticism of the assistant runs the gamut, from claims that Siri is evil, to objections that Siri has a hard time with accents, and general assertions (even lawsuits) that Siri sucks and is bad at her job.
Siri claims to speak four different languages (French, English, Japanese, and German), but Apple Scotland has already pointed out that her linguistic acumen might not be so sharp: even in dialects of her native tongue. And with Siri’s recent release in Japanese come reports that Apple’s digital assistant is struggling with her fourth language.
To be fair, Japanese is hard for anyone–except maybe children under age 12–to learn. The United States Department of Defense ranks the language as a Category IV (out of four categories, mind you), requiring DoD language learners to score 110 out of 176 points on its linguistic aptitude battery in order to qualify for training. Other languages in this category include Arabic, Pashto, Chinese, and Korean. Get the Rosetta Stone demo for one of those bad boys. They’re hard.
By contrast, Siri’s other two non-English languages, French and German, are category I and II languages, significantly easier for English-speakers to learn (and, ostensibly, for computational linguists to code).
But if you’re going to roll out a native-language service in any country–especially one so technologically advanced as Japan–it’s wise to make sure that your service cuts the linguistic mustard. For starters, you can start by making sure that the name of your virtual assistant doesn’t sound like a dirty word. As Gizmodo reports, “Siri” literally sounds like “ass” in Japanese. And then there’s the whole issue of local competitors. According to Kotaku, via Apple Insider, Siri’s Japanese performance doesn’t hold a candle to native provider DoCoMo’s own virtual assistant, Syabette Concier. A Japanese speaker on YouTube tested the two against each other:
I don’t speak Japanese either, but the folks at Kotaku provide a translation of the questions and phrases tested in the video.
Is it cold outside?
I have a stomach ache.
Tell me my schedule for tomorrow.
Give me a map for Chigasaki.
Look for videos of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. (A famous Japanese teen singer with a nonsense name.)
Raw wheat, raw rice, and fresh eggs. (A Japanese tongue twister.)
I want to cook some curry.
Wake me up tomorrow.
Of all the phrases tested, Siri was able to respond to two with aplomb (with weather information, and a follow-up about setting an alarm), and one more with moderate competence (Siri provided a schedule, but not the specified one). Apple’s allegedly quadriglottal assistant struggled with Japanese colloquialisms, localized cultural knowledge, and the pragmatics of implied requests in Japanese. Siri also failed to provide geographic information about Japan, because her Beta version only supports US maps. Syabette, by contrast, performed admirably with all phrases.
Kotaku also reports that Siri’s responses in Japan were “unnatural and rigid” and took far longer to load than Syabette Concier’s.
What are the implications for Apple? We’ll see what further Japanese consumer reviews of Siri have to tell us, but Apple would be well advised to slow expansion into new markets until its products are properly competitive. Also, the innovative tech company, and others expanding services to foreign markets, might want to consider beefing up their linguistics departments. (Shameless college-major plug.)