Speech recognition: Part I “It’s not that bad!”

April 22, 2022 by Alison Tunley

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Speech RecognitionThis blog is brought to you by speech recognition, which I was finally forced to embrace having fractured my shoulder cycling at our local velodrome. Many years ago I studied acoustic variation in speech for my PhD and did a placement with a speech recognition company. So I knew enough about the complexity of the speech signal to appreciate the scale of the challenge involved in deciphering it. Early encounters with speech recognition technology had done little to persuade me that it was reliable enough to be useful. But suddenly being down to only one functioning arm forced me to revisit my prejudice and I have had to eat humble pie and admit these tools have improved beyond my wildest imaginings.

I am aware that most people were way ahead of me on this thanks to Siri, Alexa and their ilk, but here’s what I’ve learnt during the last few weeks of being reliant on speech recognition for my translation work. The first hurdle to overcome was my feeling of stupidity talking at my computer. Thank goodness I work from home and could close the door firmly to keep out my mocking teenagers. The second lesson was that the computer matters, as does the microphone. I first tried using a speech recognition tool on a low-powered laptop and this had an accuracy rate of about one word in three, which seemed to confirm my worst suspicions. But then I found a suitable microphone for my much more powerful desktop computer (I nicked the PlayStation head set my 13 year old uses for gaming while chatting to his mates). Immediately the accuracy shot up to 90 per cent or higher.

Making full use of the commands in the dictation dictionary will make your life much easier. For example, you will need to memorise the commands for inserting punctuation (open quote, close quote, forward slash etc.). You will also need to get into the habit of instructing the tool to insert punctuation, including hyphens between words etc. It’s not fool proof – I never figured out why sometimes the tool would insist on writing ‘colon’ rather than ‘:’ (in theory it should only write the full word when you say ‘literal colon’ but in practice this seems somewhat haphazard).

Another important thing to learn is how to use the correction tools to fix any errors. You can instruct the tool to select a particular word or phrase, at which point it will offer you several different alternatives in a numbered drop down list. You can then select the number you want or alternatively repeat the phrase to get a new set of suggestions. If all else fails, you can ask the tool to let you spell the relevant word and, if necessary, it will then offer you the option of recording the item for entry in its dictionary.

Learning the commands in the dictation dictionary is important for another reason. When I first started using speech recognition, I would regularly inadvertently issue a Windows command that took me away from dictation mode. Often this would result in something entirely random happening, such as unexpectedly launching my banking application in the middle of attempting to dictate a sentence! I soon learned that speaking in full sentences or at least phrases consisting of several words makes this kind of misinterpretation much less likely. However, this hasn’t stopped me accidentally issuing a command to abruptly close the entire web browser every so often, so I recommend regularly saving your work!

Next week’s blog looks at using speech recognition tools specifically for translation and proof reading tasks and offers some tips for working productively using dictation.

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