Rory Cellan-Jones

Google - do you speak the Queen's English?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 18 Nov 08, 15:20 GMT

Apologies for mentioning another Google product so soon after the last one - but its Voice Search service could be a real winner. Only trouble is, it doesn't work unless you speak with a San Francisco accent.

Google has chosen to launch mobile voice search first on Apple's iPhone rather than on its own Android platform - which is either a breathtakingly open and platform-neutral gesture or a tacit admittance that this isn't quite the finished product, so let's smooth out the wrinkles on their platform, not ours.

You install the application on the phone and are then directed to a handy video explaining how it works. It explains that the search will also find local information without you needing to say where you are - so if you say "movies tonight" it will find local San Francisco cinemas. Or presumably London films for me.

You simply tap on voice search, then speak into the phone. The search engine thinks for a few seconds and then delivers its results - and in my case they are in pure gibberish. My first search was for "next train, West Ealing to Paddington." It delivered me some useful information about "neck strain" - but no train times. "Barts and East London National Health Service trust" came out as "bulk terminal service trucks".

Then I tried repeatedly to search for my colleague Robert Peston - up came some results on Robert Haxton , Robert Hester and Rupert Sheldrake. Other searches for names proved equally fruitless (you can imagine what it did with "Rory Cellan-Jones")and when I said "Nikesh Arora" - he's Google's European boss - the message said "Don't get that." The only two names it recognised first time were Steve Jobs and Jerry Yang - it' obviously speaks fluent Silicon Valley.

It was only when I offered up some easier queries about nearby restaurants and films that this smart new idea proved at all useful. My search provided phone numbers for local cinemas and restaurants, with Google working out that I was in West London.

Now Google does stress that its voice search application works best with commands spoken in a "North American" accent, but even when I tried my best West Coast twang, the voice engine simply flung its arms up and shrugged its shoulders in despair. Voice search has the potential to be a killer app for new smartphones - after all we're far more comfortable with shouting into our phones rather than tapping at their keyboards. But if it's to take off in the UK, it's going to have to learn to speak our language.


  • Comment number 1.

    I agree - I think this has the real potential to be a winner. Not least because of the tiny keyboard offered on the iPhone, and the constant task of having to make amends to iPhone's predictive text capabilities.

    Although it does make me wonder why speech word processor tools never really took off. But there's definitely potential there for this to be huge - and what better gadget to start it on than the iPhone.

  • Comment number 2.

    I'd be happy for my iPhone to offer voicedialing before voice search.

  • Comment number 3.

    Well if it's going to be accent specific Google has lost before they even started, imagine trying to define an an 'English accent'. Don't think I'll bother with this one.

    On a tangent, I logged into Facebook this morning to find that they have finally developed 'British English' as a language option. Not sure whether to applaud their multiculturalism or throw something at them but at least I'll be seeing fewer z's from now on.

  • Comment number 4.

    @paullloydjohnson the 'Say Who' app works brilliantly- and understands an Aberdonian accent!

  • Comment number 5.

    Ah, it's starting to make sense now. Apple bought PA Semi a while back - a company that specialises in military grade processors. Specifically, processors that are capable of dealing with massive amounts of data very quickly when required, but then sit idle using very little power when they are not needed.

    Good voice recognition is notoriously processor intensive which isn't good on a mobile device where battery life is already an issue. Using PA Semis chips, we might start to see high quality voice recognition on iPhones without seriously impacting on battery life.

    Apple have never led the way with innovation, but they sure know how to put existing tech together to make very usable gear. Maybe Apple are looking to make voice control the new touch screen...

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    @camholder I changed my Facebook account to English (Pirate) and have been too amused ever since to care when I haven't got a clue what I'm clicking on any more...

  • Comment number 8.

    I find this quite interesting since I'm using a service that converts my voicemail to text something they call voxsciences, I'm not paying for it yet! But that seems to work ok, I've got a real cockney friend and it understands him ok as well as an american friend whose messages come through as well. They must be doing something right at least, so why is it that Google and Microsoft are struggling with it?

  • Comment number 9.

    Interesting point #3: z's are standard British English and some newspapers actually chose to use z's over s's in organise/organize, etc. It is a common misconception that it is American!

  • Comment number 10.

    Perhaps Google can use accent detection to return search results releated to the user's location.

  • Comment number 11.

    In defense of American English at least it is more standardized and more universal. Most native British can't even speak basic English. 'Cos itsa bore innit. Like know what I mean? Being British and having lived in America for a long time I can honestly say that there are far more people per-capita (if you don't know what that means then I'm talking about you) with horrifically limited vocabulary in the UK. It's high time the British dumped their snobbery about American culture and just admitted that the dominant English speaking nation dictates so many cultural forces for us, that begrudging it is just pure pathetic pettiness from a failed nation. I'm sure this will get some bitter reaction but the United Kingdom, although many parts, is all part of the State of Denial.

  • Comment number 12.

    I had a good giggle at the mental image of all those headless people running aroud trying to share a head :)

    Limey - I suggest you go look up 'per capita' then, in future, you might not look like one of those people you describe as having a 'horifically limited vocabulary'.

    Still it made me smile :P

  • Comment number 13.

    #11 and #12

    No, I think Limey may be is right about the number of heads per capita on different sides of the pond.

    There are probably more mad axemen and chainsaw users per capita (correct usage!) in the US than in the UK - at least if the movie industry is to be believed. So it stands to reason, innit!

  • Comment number 14.


    google, probably does not speaks the queens' is sad!

  • Comment number 15.

    Yankees suck!

    In Chile we shall always prefer British English at school and university for it is more clear to understand. It does not sound like the constant mumbling of USA speakers full of made-up words and nonsense expressions.


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