Amazon is looking for an Australian linguist for its data team

Isabella Kwai

Think you know the ins and outs of Australian English? Amazon is hiring.

“Amazon is seeking a linguist with an Australian background to join our data team,” reads a job description on its website. The job will involve transcribing, as well as annotating speech and language data, and it is one of several openings for linguists, including those familiar with Canadian French, American English and Canadian English.

Though the job posting didn’t get into such specifics, it’s very likely to involve research for Amazon’s voice-recognition device, the Amazon Echo, which helps users check the weather, stream music and plan to-do lists through a personal assistant named Alexa.

The inability of some software to recognise accents is a well-documented frustration among people who speak English with a non-American accent. A BBC Scotland comedy bit from 2010 involving two Scottish men trapped in a voice-activated elevator has received over a million views. (“Please remain calm,” the operator intones as the men begin screaming in frustration.)

The effort by the Seattle-based Amazon to hire more linguists with backgrounds outside American English may point to an acknowledgment that such systems must adapt to all types of voices if they are to appeal to multiple markets.

“If people like Google, Apple and Amazon are putting money into this stuff, localisation needs to be a part of it,” said Simon Musgrave, a lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne.

Current voice-recognition software, he explained, draws from a training database of sounds and uses statistical modeling to match audio with the understanding of vowels, consonants and words.

“They’re going to need a body of recordings from Australians with good annotations” that connect audio to meaning, he said.

Non-rhotic accent

The Australian accent, for example, is distinct from American English in that it is non-rhotic — the “r” sound is not pronounced. Australian…

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