Google Home can understand Singaporean English, but does it know Singlish?
Unfortunately, there’s still a lot that it’s trying to learn
By Jonathan Loh
Finally, the Google Home and Home Mini have officially landed in Singapore, priced at S$189 (US$144.38) and S$79 respectively on the Google Store.
Singaporeans will be glad to know that Google Home and Home Mini devices sold here are fitted with the tech giant’s “Singaporean English” voice command support, which was first introduced in November last year.
According to Google, this means that made-in-Singapore terms such as “kopitiam”, Paya Lebar and MRT can be recognised by Google Assistant and won’t be lost in translation.
This saves Singaporeans the trouble of awkward rephrasing and faking accents to get the device to even remotely recognise what is being said.
But hold on a minute.
Before you start blabbering on in Singlish to Google Home, is the intelligence behind it really comprehensive enough to decipher Singapore’s famous national colloquial tongue? Or does it merely recognise Singaporean-accented English?
Unlike the English language, Singlish – a mishmash of spoken English with Mandarin, Malay and Chinese dialects – has a seemingly endless trove of colourful vocabulary.
Unconvinced that Google Home is capable of such a magnificent feat, as smart as it might be, I put it to the test.
Here’s what happened.
Eager to find out if Google Home could understand detailed commands, I asked it to help me search for job openings for reporters on LinkedIn.
First, in proper English.
Let’s just say its response was underwhelming.
Perhaps my request was too specific, or was “LinkedIn” not in Google’s dictionary yet? But how can that be?
Maybe it would understand if I spoke to it in Singlish? I replaced “job openings” with the Malay word “lobang”, and rephrased my request.
Unsurprisingly, Google Home was left dumbfounded and assured me that it was “trying to learn”. Hopefully so.
Next, I asked Google Home if it could make a reservation for me at Taiwanese restaurant Din Tai Fung, curious to see if it recognises non-western brands.
Instead of making a reservation, Google Home listed Din Tai Fung restaurants within 15.9km of my location and their respective addresses.
Not exactly a helpful answer but it was still a step up from the previous one.
This time, I swapped “make a reservation” for the Singlish term “chope table”.
With fewer syllables for Google Home to comprehend, my hopes of snapping up a table at Din Tai Fung were raised, as long as it understood what “chope” meant.
However, Google Home gave me a detailed rundown of the restaurant’s outlet at Jurong Point mall with no mention of making reservations.
At least now I know the place is “eight kilometres away and is rated 3.9 stars”.
Taking advantage of Google Home’s knowledge of locations in Singapore, I then tried to ask for a good place for coffee in Toa Payoh for a quick caffeine fix, once again in proper English.
Third time’s the charm as it managed to answer my question accurately, listing Toa Payoh’s top three coffee outlets.
But disappointingly, my attempt to ask Google Home for a place to “lim kopi” (drink coffee) was responded with a pretty depressing: “Sorry, I don’t know how to help with that yet.”
My conclusion: When Google touted its Home and Home Mini as being able to understand Singaporean English, it most likely was referring to Singaporean-accented English only.
So for Singaporeans getting the Home devices, don’t expect your new assistant to understand you like your best friend would.
But as Google Home continually learns and updates its software, I still have hope that asking it for a place to “lim kopi” and receiving a satisfying answer could one day become a reality.
Can la, hor?