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How do chatbots deal with accents?

By Margaret Rouse | Last updated: February 2, 2023

Regional dialects, accents and speech impediments used to be a huge stumbling block for voice-based chatbots and interactive voice response (IVR) systems.

In the past, verbal input that was spoken with an accent, lisp or stutter often resulted in the same output: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” That’s because yesteryear's automatic speech recognition (ASR) was rules-based and trained with a limited number of phoneme patterns.

In linguistics, a phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a particular language. Yesteryear's ASR systems used phonemes to break spoken language down into individual sounds and match phoneme patterns to specific words. When someone spoke with an accent or speech impediment, it was often difficult for the system to statistically match the user’s verbal input with specific words or phrases the system had been taught.

Today, there are several ways developers are successfully addressing this known issue. Popular approaches include:

  • Providing users with an option to choose an accent at the beginning of an interaction. For example, the user might be given a choice between American, British and Australian English.
  • Training the speech recognition technology with large, labeled data sets that include examples of different accents for a particular language.
  • Using unsupervised or semi-supervised machine learning (ML) models trained on diverse multi-lingual datasets to optimize language-independent outputs.

Why Have Voice-Based Chatbots and IVR Systems Gotten Better at Handling Accents?

Rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning have made it easier than ever for conversational chatbots and IVR systems to deal with regional and foreign accents.

In order to understand why there's been such improvement in such a relatively short period of time, it’s important to understand how the technology works.

When a virtual assistant or IVR system receives spoken input, the first thing it does is use speech-to-text algorithms to convert the spoken words into text.

Next, the system uses natural language processing (NLP) to analyze the structure of the text and determine each word’s meaning. Once the analysis is completed, it uses intent recognition to determine which action to take.

Intent recognition can be based on either statistics or rules. Rules-based models are programmed with if/then statements that map specific inputs to specific outputs. Many old school IVRs and chatbots were rules-based. If you asked the bot something that wasn’t mapped out in its dialogue flowchart, you probably got a response like “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

Increasingly, data scientists and machine learning engineers are using large language models (LLMs) such as OpenAI’s GPT-3 and Google’s BERT to classify intent and optimize outputs for voice-based chatbots and IVRs. This type of complex AI model is often trained for general use with unsupervised learning and then fine-tuned with labeled data for specific languages, dialects and accents.

The result is that today’s conversational AI systems are far more likely to accurately understand intent even when someone speaks with an accent or has a speech impediment.

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Written by Margaret Rouse

Profile Picture of Margaret Rouse

Margaret Rouse is an award-winning technical writer and teacher known for her ability to explain complex technical subjects simply to a non-technical, business audience. Over the past twenty years her explanations have appeared on TechTarget websites and she's been cited as an authority in articles by the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, ZDNet, PC Magazine and Discovery Magazine.

Margaret's idea of a fun day is helping IT and business professionals learn to speak each other’s highly specialized languages. If you have a suggestion for a new definition or how to improve a technical explanation, please email Margaret or contact her on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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