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How To Create Multilingual Virtual Assistants to Scale Conversations

Peiru Teo

Peiru Teo

Geographical diversification opens up a broader market for businesses. Such expansion often leads to widening demographics of the customer base; gaining more international customers, including those who may not speak the same language. Today, English still tops the charts as the language used online, and it is the primary language in most online content is made available. However, only 25% of internet users use English online. These suggest that online content and virtual assistants, which are multilingual can reach wider audiences.

Source: Statistica

Developing Multilingual Virtual Assistants to Address Market Demands

Asia is home to over 2000 out of 7000 languages spoken in the world. The unique landscape of the Asian market makes it essential for enterprises to work with a regional solutions provider who has a greater understanding of the region. Solution providers who have gone regional have the edge of understanding the region’s many tongues.

When approaching the demand for multilingual support, the easy way out would be to rely on machine translation because it is fast and accessible via multiple APIs to cloud translation services. However, it may not be the most effective. More often than not, machine translations of pidgin or creole languages tend to be inaccurate; machine translation tends to be incorrect when they are not contextualised, even if the system has a complete understanding of the language. The dictionary definition of every term may never fully capture the intention of the user as other cultural aspects influence spoken-language and dictions. Hence, the right way to approach this is by working closely with native linguists who speak and understand the local language variants. These linguists also provide lexical resources to improve the development of Natural Language Understanding of said mixed language variants.

Native linguists who speak and understand
the local language variants.

Mixed Languages – Tackling the Singaporean “Singlish”

An illustration close to home – despite being a developed country with English being the mandatory lingua franca beginning from primary school, a commonly spoken language on the ground is “Singlish”- what the locals refer to as Singapore-English. Singlish is a creole language that has developed over time, which comprise words sourced from English, Chinese, Malay, Indian, dialects, and fillers, heavily influenced by Singapore’s cultural diversity. The use of mixed languages makes it even more challenging for NLP to be done solely based on dictionary knowledge. Mixed languages such as Singlish are more prevalent than we think, as over two-thirds of the world speaks more than one language- multilingualism presents vast importance of the ability for any conversational interface to interpret different tongues. 

Such a phenomenon is common throughout Asia and the rest of the world, which highlights the importance of conversational interfaces which understand localised slangs.

The Proximity Advantage of Regional Providers

Localised solution providers based in each specific market have an inherent advantage due to the proximity to the country. Physical closeness also suggests higher volumes of cultural exchanges from travel and migration patterns. Furthermore, the system enjoys economies of scope when working with different language with strong semantic relationships.

How Understanding the Local Language Helps with your Business Case

Beyond working with native linguists in building your local language corpus and lexicon for training your AI, is establishing your business use case. After all, most AI virtual assistants are deployed to solve a specific business problem or meet a goal, like supporting the business’ ever-growing operations in a region. The most ubiquitous virtual assistant use case would be Customer Service and Support. Most regional e-commerce players choose a test market to launch a prototype virtual assistant, most often in English. After understanding how and what consumers ask, they scale up to deploy the same virtual assistant in a multitude of languages regionally.  

Closing Words

Realistically, the emphasis on native language support is to complement a company’s regional expansion strategy. Functions that exist in one market are bound to exist in the others — the logical next step will be to scale the same initiatives in different languages to meet the demands of diverse consumer groups. Achieving natural, multilingual support helps businesses, big and small, provide 24/7 service to clients regardless of the language they speak. This additional layer of consideration can take a virtual assistant up a notch to improve performance holistically. 

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