Want your kid to be bilingual? Alexa could help

Starting them young.
Starting them young.
Image: Amazon
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Outside of playing smooth jazz on queue and helping you pick out what to wear, smart home devices like Amazon’s Echo, Apple’s Siri, and Google Home haven’t had much of a truly meaningful impact on our daily lives. Despite the fact that over 35 million voice-enabled home speakers have already been sold in the US and a supposed 375 million people use Siri each month, the tasks these devices can help us with still feel pretty inconsequential. Sometimes I find myself asking, “Shouldn’t we be further along?” (Alexa can’t answer that question, unfortunately.)

Smart-home devices could soon do more than order your groceries. Instead of turning on the lights in our apartments and getting the score of the Mets game, they could help promote diversity. As we shift away from a command-based structure with these technologies to a more conversational one, the world of possibilities opens up, especially when it comes to language learning.

Alexa and Siri might be the best language teacher you could ever ask for. As voice user interfaces (VUIs) like these near ubiquity, there’s an opportunity for them to have a lasting impact on how we empower communities. Soon your smart-home device could help you learn to talk with your aunt in her native language, or teach your child the tongue in which her grandfather once spoke. In this way, the tools of the future could help us connect with the past.

Mother tongues

Tech tools that aid language acquisition could be a huge help in reversing the erased ties to our ancestors’ cultures. For example, around 100 years ago, my great grandfather came by himself from Croatia as a teenager to start a new life in the US. While raising my grandfather, he and my great grandmother made a concerted effort to only speak English so their children would be fluent and, therefore, “fully American.” At the time, speaking another language made you anything but. My grandfather therefore never learned to speak Croatian, and lost touch with his heritage as a result.

Fast forward to the present day, and the same sentiment still rings true for first-generation Americans born to immigrant parents. Their parents did the same thing as my great grandfather: In favor of fully assimilating their children, they didn’t pass on their language.

Data shows that only 40% of children in the US with two foreign-born parents can speak their parents’ non-English language “very well.” That number drops dramatically as you consider cohorts with one foreign-born parent, and reaches close to 0% with those who have no foreign-born grandparents.

VUIs could be the unlikely hero for this disappearing diaspora. In addition to family members teaching children their mother tongue, smart-home devices’ prominent places in the home could help reinforce those lessons. If more children have opportunities to speak and learn the languages tied to their identity, it could mean a significant transformation for immigrant parents passing along their culture, and children would have a better shot of hanging on to that heritage.

Voices make sense

VUIs have become much more prevalent in our lives, and talking to them, especially in our homes, is almost second nature. With conversation being such a big part of language learning, having an omnipresent thing to talk to in your home will make a big difference. Even if you don’t speak your parents’ or grandparents’ native language, you’ll still be able to reinforce the cultural traditions and values of their culture to your kids—and learn yourself, too. It’s great that Siri can set an alarm for me, but wouldn’t it be even cooler if one day she could help my future daughter—and me—learn Croatian?

Finding more ways to integrate VUIs into learning at home could go a long way. Many of my colleagues, including Lebanese Americans, Korean Americans, and Japanese Americans, have lost the link to their parents’ native language. However, there’s a new trend around the office: Many new parents are clawing back their cultural and linguistic ties, preferring to raise their children as bilingual and bicultural. They’re doing this through a combined effort to speak their native language at home, regularly practicing cultural customs, and sending their young children to bilingual daycares and schools. It takes a lot of effort and resources to make this happen, and outside of New York, I can imagine this would be even more difficult.

That’s where Alexa—or Siri, or Google Home—could come in. The power of our voices has (quite literally) been right under our noses for some time now. Voice and conversation are the most natural forms of interaction and communication, so it makes sense that this sense is now pushing tech in new directions. Typing on a keyboard is pretty unnatural, but we’ve all been babbling words since we were babies. Through language apps and Alexa skills that get us talking in a more natural manner than text-based applications, VUIs could help create a more culturally diverse America.

In the near future

The next generation of Alexa skills could help aid in language acquisition, retention, practice, and reinforcement, ultimately helping to celebrate culture and diversity. Sure, interacting in your native language with your kids is always going to be the best option. However, VUIs are in a great position to be a go-to reinforcement tool for language learning.

Developers could pair machine learning and natural language processing with language apps like Duolingo and leverage their already extensive language lessons. Your child could sit down to have a conversation in your mother tongue about her day, helping to reinforce what you’re already teaching her. Maybe some companies will create characters that appear on your tablet or television and interact and converse with young children in real time. Thanks to the voice recognition available today, we could be seeing even more robust features soon. For example, VUIs could identify users by their voices and adapt accordingly, to the point where they could understand your marble-mouthed toddler.

When it comes to accessibility, smart-home devices are relatively affordable, which has aided in their widespread adoption. This is especially true when you consider the price of language schools. The cost of an Echo Dot, for instance, comes out to just a few hours of language lessons, making it an obvious alternative for lower-income families. While VR might also seem like another emerging tech poised to make an impact on language learning, the cost of the average VR rig (around $2,000) makes the technology prohibitive for most households. Given those factors, smart-home devices make the most sense as the best language learning technology to make an outsized impact.

We’re close to the point where VUIs could be used not only to help us better communicate with our relatives, but to be more proud of our heritage. While personal devices can feel like they’re pushing people further apart—both as individuals and a society—something as seemingly simple as a smart-home device has the potential to bring people closer together. The more people understand each other, whether through speech or customs, and the more room the world has for cultural pride, the better off we’ll all be.