Siri as a pronunciation coach

Siri is a voice assistant application for Apple devices, with similar applications available for Andoid and Windows operating systems. Google also recently launched a voice activated assistant as part of its search engine. These voice assistants allow users to give spoken commands and receive a real-time response. Siri is a great tool for getting students to practice their pronunciation, and to show students how their pronunciation might be heard by others.

Recently, I taught a lesson in my ESL class around the topic of smartphones. The lesson included an activity created by Neil at Dreamreader.net. The activity involved students reading passage about Siri and answering some comprehension questions. The students were then encouraged to  try Siri for themselves. You can download your own free copy of this excellent resource by clicking on the image below!

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This activity can be adapted for any language which Siri supports. Siri currently responds to about twenty languages, as well as variations of different languages, and anyone can change the language settings on their Apple device. Students try to give Siri a range of English commands to elicit the funny responses and comebacks that Siri has to questions such as ‘Will you marry me?’ and statements such as ‘I’m drunk’.

For ESL teachers in Japan, this YouTube video (watch from about 7’30) might be useful. It shows a group of TV personalities in Japan trying out Siri to test the accuracy of their English pronunciation. Starting with single words and moving on to phrases, the participants speak English to Siri to see if she can decipher their intended meaning.

My students were really excited and engaged in this lesson. When Siri misunderstood there were lots of laughs and playful ribbing, but it also led to students sitting back and engaging in conversations with their classmates about tongue placement, stress, intonation and enunciation. While these are concepts I talk about in class on occasion, when the emphasis in my course is communicating meaning, and if meaning has been transferred from one speaker to another, I’m not one to go and look to correct pronunciation errors that have not interfered with the goal of communication, and thus risk having my students put up walls that I have spent a long time trying to pull down.

The thing with Siri is that she tells it like it is.  Unlike a human, Siri doesn’t have the social experiences with non-native speakers to make assumptions and connections about what a person might be trying to say. A barrier to students’ development of native-like pronunciation is the fact that in the school context their interlocutors are often other non-native speakers, or native speakers who are accustomed to the accent of the learners, and the influence that their first language has on the pronunciation of their second. Because Siri doesn’t have these experiences, and because she has no memory or social skills, she will have no problem pointing out a student’s mistake two times or two hundred times.

For this reason I did worry that my students might be offended by Siri  if she didn’t understand them after multiple attempts.  If I had stood face-to-face with a student and asked him or her to repeat a phrase twenty-five times before being satisfied with the accuracy of the pronunciation, there is a high chance that I would have a student running out of the room crying. But rather than being disheartened, the students were motivated to continue and repeat phrases many more times than I expected, and fully took on the challenge to receive the response they were looking for.

Siri is not a perfect pronunciation coach. Like all artificial intelligence, she is not a replacement for the real thing. Many of us would have had experiences trying to communicate with voice command systems over the telephone, and getting frustrated at being repeatedly transferred to the wrong department. However, Siri has the potential to be more than just a fun tool. With immediate and unbiased feedback, it helps keep students focused on the skills that are needed for native-like pronunciation, and to remind them that pronunciation influences comprehension in a major way, particularly when they step outside of the confines of the classroom.

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OVER TO YOU …

*Have you used Siri in your classroom?
*What do you think of voice assistant applications in the classroom?
*How do you get students to think more about their pronunciation?

Add to the discussion in the comments below,
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2 thoughts on “Siri as a pronunciation coach

  1. Siri is a great tool for pronunciation!
    Another idea for minimal pairs: tell Siri to show them pictures.
    Some examples:
    “Show me a picture of grass/glass”
    “Show me a picture of lock/rock”
    “…bear/pear”
    etc.
    Very fun for students and good for building vocabulary too.

    Like

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