Friday Fun with Apps: Using voice recognition technology

Yesterday I became frustrated with the voice recognition feature of Google Translate app because it failed to accurately record my Russian. I wanted to experiment with this tool from the perspective of a language learner. I tried saying some very basic sentences in Russian, and several times the software didn’t recognize my words. I’m confident, though, that native Russian speakers would have understood me just fine.

As excitement grows over voice recognition software and the mobile apps that make use of this technology, we should be careful when promoting such an app to our students. Advise them to speak slowly, clearly, and loud enough to be heard well. Even following that advice they might still end up inputting words by typing, whether it’s on Google Tranlate or a dictionary app with voice searching capability. (In the case of Google Tranlaste, I’d also remind them of the limitations of online translators.)

A more enjoyable app for everyone is Talking Tom, an animated alley cat, (or Talking Gina, if you prefer a female giraffe). Talking Tom is an entertaining version of Voice Memo with animation. The idea is that you can record your voice, play it back, and then share the video via e-mail or upload it to YouTube or Facebook. The fun begins with morphing your voice. Playback is immediate, and Tom repeats your words in a high-pitched voice. You can also poke Tom, pet him and make him purr, and give him milk to drink. (Gina drinks water from a barrel or a cocktail through a straw. You can offer her different snacks, too.)

What applications could these apps have?

  • Students can simply have fun speaking out loud in English. They can apply some of the “mind games” I’ve suggested in the past and record actual thoughts. This is nice for shy speakers who might be willing to talk to Tom  in quiet, private settings.


  • Students can use Talking Tom for pronunciation practice. Have them review drills or passages you practiced in class with Tom’s help. The immediate playback allows them to evaluate how clear their own speech is. If you want actual samples in their normal speaking voices, they can make their submissions with Voice Memo. Talking Tom can be used as preparation for the final recording.


  • Students can create short videos to share with a partner. The video can include some animation and spoken words. Partners can then watch the video and write down a description of what they see. This activity can focus on verb tenses (action verbs in the present progressive or a series of actions in the simple past, for instance) or reported speech. Be sure to cover relevant vocabulary, such as purr and poke.


  • Students can submit a brief recording on an assigned topic. Since the morphing disguises the voices, playback in a classroom setting would easily allow the game of  listening and identifying the speaker. Topics can be your birthplace, origin of your first name, your personality, your worst habit, how you usually dress for class, or your general physical appearance.

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