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 August 15th, not July 4th, 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.”