Amazon.com Inc is starting to learn Hinglish. The US e-commerce company is beginning to ship Echo speakers in India this week, about a year after bringing them to foreign markets like the UK and Germany. In that time, teams of linguists, speech scientists, developers and engineers have given a decidedly local makeover to the Alexa virtual assistant that powers the speakers.
This Alexa uses a blend of Hindi and English and speaks with an unmistakably Indian accent. She knows Independence Day is on August 15, not July 4, and wishes listeners “Happy Diwali and a prosperous New Year!” She also refers to the living room as ‘drawing room’ and can add jeera (cumin), haldi (turmeric) and atta (flour) to your shopping list. Then there are her cricket jokes. (Don’t ask.)
“We wanted our devices to talk, walk and feel Indian,” said Parag Gupta, head of product management for Amazon Devices in India. “Alexa is not a visiting American, she has a very Indian personality.” Amazon isn’t alone. Technology giants from Apple Inc to Google are targeting this nation of 1.3 billion people by training virtual assistants in the heterogeneity of its languages and subcultures. Though many people understand American or British English, they’re more comfortable with assistants who sound more like them.
Hinglish borrows parts of both languages, including the grammar. In some cases words are fused together to mean something different. The key is for the digital assistant to understand a sentence using a mixture of both, yet grasp what they mean and their context.
Hinglish is particularly important as technology spreads beyond major cities to India’s hinterland, where declining prices are fueling adoption of smartphones and the internet. Many users are first-generation literates obsessed with Bollywood movies and cricket games who are just starting to use digital payments, e-commerce and social networks. Flawless English just won’t cut it.
“Global companies realize that India has several populations, each the size of entire countries in Europe, that can’t be cracked open with American English,” said Ravi Gururaj, a Bangalore-based entrepreneur and co-founder of Harvard Angels India. “They have to adapt with Hinglish.”
Alphabet Inc has introduced a Hinglish-speaking Google Assistant that powers its instant messaging app Allo. Apple began advertising last year to hire native Hindi/Indian English speakers to help evolve and enrich Siri by crafting “culturally appropriate dialog for India.” And the latest operating system pre-loaded into this year’s iPhone 8, as well as the newest iPhone X, allows Siri users to set its keyboard to Hinglish.
Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive officer, told an Indian newspaper that his company is thinking through “every single way” to make the Siri experience better for Indian consumers. “Voice-based interfaces are fast emerging and given that Amazon, Apple, Google and others are using them to increase reach and convenience, Hinglish is the way to achieve that,” said MS Krishnan, professor of technology and operations at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan. “It is a trend.”
Amazon is sparing no expense. CEO Jeff Bezos has pledged to invest $5 billion in India as he battles local rival Flipkart Online Services Pvt for supremacy in e-commerce, with part of the money going into thousands of hours of work to conquer the language barrier. The accent has been an “incredibly hard skill to develop,” said Amazon’s Gupta.
Amazon incorporated Indian intonations, pauses and even local humor in its Echo devices. Alexa responds to Hinglish questions such as “What is your good name?” and fields a query of “Alexa, should I carry an umbrella today?” by instantly providing the weather forecast. The voice assistant can fetch music from the Bollywood blockbuster film “Dil Chahta Hai” and recount stories from the ancient Panchatantra children’s fables.
“We don’t want local customers to have to change their behavior to use our devices,” Gupta said. “We want to learn and get better over time.” For the Indian market, Amazon has slashed 30 percent off the price tag of its devices.
Amazon has also worked with third-party developers who have built more than 10,000 extensions for Alexa – from summoning cabs through Ola to recommending Deepika Padukone movies to finding the perfect recipe for Hyderabad biryani. For contrast, Amazon began selling Echo devices in the US three years ago with a mere 13 skills.
Local knowledge is only growing more important. A Google KPMG report from April said the country’s 234 million Indian language users have already overtaken its 175 English internet users, and a large chunk of these prefer to speak rather than type. The study projects the Indian language user base will grow to 534 million in the next four years and Hindi-speaking users alone will overtake English speakers on the internet.
“If a virtual assistant sounds local, natural and personal, users will gravitate toward it giving companies the competitive edge,” said Gururaj, the technology investor. Sounding like an American robot or chatbot can never work. It will be lost in translation.”