About a year after bringing its hit Echo speakers to foreign markets such as the U.K. and Germany, Amazon.com Inc. is starting to ship the voice-controlled hardware to India. In that time, teams of linguists, speech scientists, developers, and engineers have given the Echo’s virtual assistant, Alexa, a decidedly local makeover.
This Alexa uses Hinglish, a blend of Hindi and English, and speaks with an unmistakably Indian accent. She knows Independence Day is Aug. 15, not July 4, and wishes listeners “Happy Diwali and a prosperous New Year!” She refers to the living room as the “drawing room” and will add jeera (cumin), haldi (turmeric), and atta (flour) to your shopping list. And her cricket jokes are truly, authentically terrible. “We wanted our devices to talk, walk, and feel Indian,” says Parag Gupta, head of product management for Amazon Devices in India. “Alexa is not a visiting American. She has a very Indian personality.”
Like Amazon, Apple Inc. and Google are trying to better appeal to India’s 1.3 billion people by training Siri and Google Assistant in the country’s heterogeneous languages and subcultures, making their talking gadgets sound more natural in Indian homes. The job starts with Hinglish, which borrows vocabulary and grammar rules from both of its component languages and sometimes fuses words to make a combined term whose meaning can seem counter-intuitive. It