Now that Siri has finally arrived on the Mac, Apple’s intelligent assistant just got a whole lot more useful. But some users are finding that this has only increased their frustration – because the service is unable to cope with more than one language.

Making Siri bilingual might, at first glance, seem an unreasonable request. After all, it’s taken speech recognition a very long time indeed to reliably understand one language at a time. I first tried a prototype system way back in the 1980s, when it was utterly hopeless. I’d try another one every few years, but it’s only in the past seven or eight years that it’s been any good.

But there are many places in the world where it’s extremely common to speak more than one language. In particular, speaking English and a local language is the norm in many countries. Which means that you may well be speaking to Siri in English but asking it to find, for example, a German place. Or speaking to Siri in Dutch but asking it to call someone with an English name …


The results of these bilingual requests would be comical if they weren’t so annoying. Essentially, Siri interprets everything in terms of the pronunciation of the primary language. So if you ask Siri ‘How long will it take to drive to Théatre du Palais Royale?’ or tell her to ‘Send a text message to Anja,’ the results are … not very helpful.

Of course, it’s a difficult enough task to interpret one language reliably, so it would be asking a lot for Siri to figure out which of 20 different languages you might be speaking for any given part of the sentence. It wouldn’t be realistic for us to start a sentence in one language and complete it in another. But I’m not proposing that.

I’m arguing that it ought to have enough intelligence to cope with someone speaking English but referencing local places and names. Our device knows which language we are speaking, it knows which country we’re in and it can already identify which part of a query refers to names and places, so all I am asking of it is to try the local language as well as the primary language if the query otherwise resolves to gibberish. In other words, if it can’t understand the query in English, try the proper nouns in the local language.

Or simply allow the user to specify both a primary and a secondary language, with Siri understanding that proper nouns are likely to be in the secondary language.


The issue is a bigger one on Mac, because we may also have filenames in a local language while our Mac – and Siri – is set to English. It increases the need for bilingual functionality, but also adds to the challenge.

Again, though, Siri already needs to parse our query to figure out that part of what we are referring to is a filename, so it should again be able to apply the same strategy.

And sure, this stuff is still challenging, but Google’s voice search already allows you to select both a primary and secondary language. In fact, you can select up to five languages in all, so I’m not asking for the impossible.

If you are bilingual, how useful would it be for Siri to understand two different languages? Please take our poll, and share your experiences in the comments.

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