Sunday, February 17, 2008

Adventures in Bilingualism

My SIL got the wife one of these for Christmas. Now, most people would not detect any accent in my wife, but over the years I’ve become attuned to where she is not quite native in her pronunciation. The machine, however, picked up on that right away, although my wife claims that the extreme variance between what she says and what the machine records means that the thing is having fun at her expense. Examples?

Wife: band aids

Machine: tennis balls

Wife: Moron!

Machine: apples

Wife: I’ve been trying to get it to say apples for five minutes!

Wife: bananas

Machine: pine nuts

Me: You’ve been at that a while, wouldn’t it be easier to just write it down?

Wife: But then I would not have won.

Not that I’m immune from this, either. Chinese is a tonal language. That means that the using normal rhythm of an English sentence in a Chinese one will change the tone, and hence the meaning of the final word. If you want to say: “you’re so good” and emphasize the “good”, you’ll likely wind up changing the flat-toned 乖 “guai” (good) to falling tone 怪 “guai” (weird, strange).

Once a recalcitrant child was refusing to take her glass (杯子 bei tz, flat tone) , to her mother at the sink. She dawdled. Her father sharply told her to take the bei tz to her mother. Except using sharp English intonation shifts the tone from first (flat) the fourth (falling). A few minutes later the child is seen struggling with a huge Chinese blanket that weighs as much as she does and is many times larger. “Why are you dragging that thing out?” asks her mother. “Father told me to bring the (fourth tone) bei tz (被子).” Fourth tone bei tz , or 被子, means “quilt” in Chinese. That was years ago, and I still haven’t lived that one down. “You speak Chinese like a deaf person” says my wife.


Jim Wright said...

Yeah, both voice and handwriting recognition have made tremendous strides in the last decade, but it's going to be a while before 'natural' recognition reaches human level.

I have the same problem with hand writing recognition, I use a Sony Clie. I use the JOT program for handwriting recognition, but here's the problem: I'm left handed, I've had my hands broken several times, frost bitten, and nowadays I have arthritis - so my handwriting isn't all the best. The Clie will recognize most of what I right, but randomly will not recognize things. I spent 5 minutes yesterday trying to get it to copy a 'K.' It would have been much easier to just write my shopping list on a piece of paper, but like your wife said - then the machine would win, and I'm not having that.

Anonymous said...

A few years ago I bought 'Via Voice' software. Bloody thing drove me nuts. Hubby tells me that voice recognition will never work for me, as I have an idiosyncratic speech pattern (check out the silver-doller words on my man).

I followed that with a Palm Tungston. I got pretty good at writing in it, but never good enough to make it worth my time.

I think I'll stick with stickey notes, pantomime, and odd faces.

And, like you, having my multi-lingual spouse shake their head at me in dismay.