Why talking-to-text has taken off in China
Published: 1st Jun 2012 00:00:28
Anyone who has ever written in Chinese on a computer, or composed a text message on their phone in that language, knows the typing process is not nearly as simple as in English.
In most languages using a Roman alphabet, you directly type the letters that make up a word.
But in Chinese, you type in the Roman letters that approximate the sound of a particular ideogram. Then, depending on the software used, a list of possible ideograms pops up, and the user chooses the correct one.
Typing in Chinese is much easier than writing each character by hand, as you only have to recognise the ideogram, instead of the entire character, but it is still relatively time-consuming.
Touch screen typing on devices like high-end smartphones and tablet computers seems to create even more headaches.
That is a large part of the reason why voice messaging is particularly popular among Chinese-language users.
During a recent lunch hour at the University of Hong Kong, many students are chatting away on their smartphones, often holding their phones close to listen to or record messages.
You don't have to type, because as we all know, typing in Chinese is a pain.”
Li Qiang, a PhD candidate in engineering, tells me he only types messages in class or at work, because it is more discrete than speaking.
"Of course, my preference is to use voice messaging. It is so much easier. And I use it because all my friends use it," says the 26-year-old student.
Like almost all students from mainland China, Mr Li's preferred application for instant voice messaging is Weixin, a free app launched in early 2011 by technology firm Tencent.
Its name means "micro message".
Weixin offers both instant voice and text messaging, including some unique location functions. It is a social network, allowing users to build networks, share conversations and meet new people by shaking their phone at the same time as another random user.
In just over a year, the number of Weixin users has exceeded 100m, according to a message posted by the company's chief executive Ma Huateng on Sina Weibo, an extremely popular Twitter-like app.
Duncan Clark, chairman of consultancy BDA China, says it is easy to understand why the voice messaging function on Weixin is so popular.
"It's instant gratification," says Mr Clark, who is British.
"You don't have to type, because as we all know, typing in Chinese is a pain. And Chinese is such a musical language. It's better to listen to music than type out notes."
Mr Clark confesses that, as a man in his 40s, he sometimes finds it embarrassing to hold a mobile to his mouth to record a message the way people 20 years younger do.
But Beijing-based Kai Lukoff, co-founder of TechRice.com, a China-focused technology blog, feels no such embarrassment, because all his friends use voice messaging on Weixin.
"For me, when I use it, it feels very natural. It's faster and more personal. I don't know why people in the West don't use instant voice messaging," the American says.
Weixin rebranded internationally as WeTalk in April.
In addition to Chinese and English, users can choose interfaces in Indonesian, Vietnamese and Thai, other Asian languages that may prove receptive to voice messaging.
The company recently opened up its API (application programming interface), which means other developers can take Weixin's software and create their own programs to work collaboratively within the Weixin network.
This means businesses, conscious of the difficulties involved with text-based Chinese communications, are able to produce their own bespoke tools to enable employees to communicate quickly and work together by voice.
Weixin was not the first mobile messaging service in China. It was preceeded by Talkbox, a walkie-talkie app originally developed in Hong Kong, and MiTalk by Xiaomi Tech.
The Weixin service was able to grow quickly because of the massive number of users already using other services on Tencent, including Tencent Weibo. The Twitter-like service is the main competitor to Sina Weibo.
The difficulty of inputting characters in Chinese has created opportunities for Iflytek, a company based in the central province of Anhui.
It specialises in providing Chinese speech interpretation software to schools, hospitals and telecoms companies, as well as creating voice control applications similar to Apple's Siri.
The biggest part of its business is selling educational software that rates a student's pronunciation of English and even Mandarin Chinese.
iFlytek's voice assistant goes a step further, however, as unlike Apple's closed approach to Siri, iFlytek has invited developers to work on building their own applications.
The company hopes this will mean an ecosystem - produced in collaboration with third-party developers - of voice-enabled appliances: washing machines, cars and even interactive children's toys, powered by the Chinese language.
There are still improvements to be made. Hu Yi, a 34-year-old vice president at Iflytek, laughs when he explains the difficulty of creating software capable of understanding the sheer variety of regional dialects in China.
Even though the Communist Party, in theory, unified China under Mandarin, a northern dialect, most Chinese do not speak it as a mother tongue, but learn it in schools or from television broadcasts.
"This is hard," Mr Hu admits. "Our software can handle people whose accents approach Mandarin, but not if people speak their own dialects."
And he estimates it will take five to 10 years before the company's voice recognition software can.
Currently, it can cope with only Mandarin and Cantonese, a common southern dialect used in Hong Kong and Guangdong province.
Iflytek is working on making its software receptive to speakers of the unique Shanghai dialect.
"People are finding that we need to use speech not just for communication, but also for control," Mr Hu says. "That is why there is room for us."
iFlytek has, like Tencent, now allowed outside developers to access to their API, so that the technology can be integrated into many more products more rapidly.
One such offering, Dianping, lets people to speak into their phone to find restaurant recommendations nearby.
As companies like Tencent and Iflytek find ways of creating applications for a non-Roman language like Chinese, they are finding new growth areas.
At 21:57:52 in BusinessRussia has agreed to resume gas supplies to Ukraine over the winter in a deal brokered by the European Union.
At 21:54:40 in HeadlinesCosta Rica has issued an emergency alert after ash from an erupting volcano reached the capital and beyond.
At 21:50:08 in EnglandTwo people have been arrested as part of a police investigation into a care home in Oxfordshire.
At 21:45:49 in WalesPancreatic cancer research in Wales has been boosted by £102,000 - its largest ever donation.
At 21:43:07 in HeadlinesColombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), has acknowledged its actions "have affected civilians" during 50 years of internal conflict.
At 21:22:30 in SportAustria's Matthias Brandle has set a new hour world record of 51.850km at Switzerland's Aigle Velodrome.
At 20:36:50 in EnglandAn ambulance service still cannot find a computer disk containing details of 42,000 patients which has been lost for at least two months.
At 20:17:44 in HeadlinesThe giant grey hull of RFA Argus brushed against the dockside in Freetown and within minutes the first white pickup trucks were being swung off its upper deck and ashore by crane.
At 20:10:06 in PoliticsLabour must have the "courage" to make talking about immigration policy a priority, Liam Byrne has said.
At 19:57:39 in EnglandA cross-Channel ferry service between Newhaven and Dieppe will continue operating for another year, it has been announced.
Harvard CitationBBC News, 2012. Why talking-to-text has taken off in China [Online] (Updated 1st Jun 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/1432183/Why-talking-to-text-has-taken-off-in-China [Accessed 30th Oct 2014]
News In Other Categories
Research into itching has indicated why scratching can paradoxically make you feel more itchy.
Two men have been charged after £158,000 worth of cannabis plants was seized in north Belfast.
With the doors to its brand new £1million training centre officially open, one of the UK's leading apprentice training providers, Bristol based S&B Automotive Academy, is showcasing its world-class facilities by launching a series of foreign student exchanges for the first time in its 41-year history. To get a flavour of what life is like as an apprentice in the UK, the Academy hosted 16 apprentice engineers and bus drivers from the G9 Automotive College in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a Europe-wide vocational training initiative called the ‘Leonardo Programme’ with support from the European Social Fund. In a reciprocal arrangement, S&B will be sending nine apprentices to Germany during February 2012 so that they can get an appreciation of life in the automotive industry on the Continent. A further three German exchange groups are being planned for next year. Designed to assist the development of vocational skills and training across Europe, including work placements for trainees, the Leonardo Programme has a budget of €1.75bn, which is helping to encourage UK organisations to work with their counterparts abroad. In what is expected to be another challenging year for employers in the UK automotive sector, S&B’s Chief Executive, Jon Winter, claims that the exchange initiative will bring many benefits to the Academy and its apprentices: “In a world of global automotive brands, it’s important for our learners to understand the international context of the industry they have chosen to make their career. This new exchange programme will enable apprentices and Academy staff alike to achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the automotive arena in Europe. With the Academy’s influence also extending to the USA and Asia, there’s every possibility that this initiative could move further afield in the future.” Continued Winter: “The need for skilled technicians across the world is on the increase and we actively encourage our apprentices to look at broader horizons during their training. Many of them have already learned the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Gelehrtheit’, quite simply, ‘Advancement through learning.” In the 2010/11 academic year, S&B doubled the number of successful Apprenticeships over the previous year with some 350 apprentices graduating from the Academy. At the same time, achievement levels reached an all-time high with an overall success rate of 85%. For those learners on the Advanced Apprenticeship three-year programme, success rates were even higher, at over 98%. PHOTO CAPTION: As part of their exchange visit, S&B Automotive Academy arranged for the German apprentices to visit Hampshire bus operator, Bluestar, at its Barton Park depot. The students are pictured with S&B’s Andy West (3rd right) and Steve Prewett, Bluestar’s Area Engineering Manager (2nd right). Ends http://www.sandbaa.com
Pancreatic cancer research in Wales has been boosted by £102,000 - its largest ever donation.
Two people have been arrested as part of a police investigation into a care home in Oxfordshire.
Pirate Bay co-founder Gottfrid Warg has been found guilty of hacking into computers and illegally downloading files in Denmark.