Apps like Sanas are helping smooth communication by removing accent barriers that can lead to misunderstandings.
Accents are diverse and unique, but sometimes accents get in the way of understanding people. An app called Sanas looks to remove that barrier by using AI technology to take away a person’s accent.
“We’re all trained with the products, with the services,” said Dwayne Alviola, “Whether we’re in the Philippines or in a different country, rest assured that we’re trained in every detail to handle your accounts.”
Alviola lives in the Philippines and has worked for U.S.-based companies for eight years. He previously worked in call centers and now works in customer service.
Throughout the years of working in call centers, Alviola says he and his coworkers faced discrimination and racism on the other end of the call.
“Usually, the “f-you” word, then usually they’ll be in different types of curses, but since it’s our second language, we don’t even mind it,” Alviola said. “But, racism comes in, even if we know that we’re not the one being blamed for their experience, it still hits us the most.”
Alviola says they’re stuck. When he was working in call centers, they’re not allowed to hang up, so they have to be on the call until the caller on the other line clicks off. He says accent-altering apps can lead to smoother communication and less verbal abuse.
“Especially for new graduates who just entered training, then it would help them boost their confidence,” Alviola said. “That’s also one reason why I like the app, because if it was developed just a few years ago when I was starting, I would love it.”
Others find the Sanas app especially helpful when cops or hospitals are involved.
“If there is a law, like a with discussion, with the cop, with their doctor mainly, there are a lot of problem when communicating with the doctor if you don’t know proper English,” said Mehboob Ahmedabadi, an Indian man working in media.
On the flip side, others argue that apps that take away accents perpetuate racism and discrimination by masking the problem at hand. Judy Ravin, the founder of Accents International, says there’s a way to do things differently.
“At the conclusion of our program, which is called Powerful Pronunciation, people will still have an accent,” Ravin said. “We think that’s a good thing. An accent is a piece of our cultural and linguistic identity. What we won’t have is a communication barrier due to pronunciation.”
Unlike the app that filters voices, Accents International improves pronunciation through real time coaching. For example, the vowel sounding “aw” used in words like “law” or “daughter” can be tough for those not familiar with pronouncing it.
“The way we teach it is both,” Ravin said. “What does it look like, and what does it feel like? Well, it looks like someone’s popped an egg in their mouth. It looks like a perfect oval… and a person can feel the top of their tongue behind their lower teeth. So what does it look like? What does it feel like… not, what does it sound like?”
Vincent Dixon had a thick Irish accent, but through years of teaching English in France, he learned to communicate more effectively.
“I think sometimes people feel that their accents makes them lesser or more, and it really doesn’t,” Dixon said. “It just makes you who you are. It’s like the color of my eyes or the color of my hair.”
In a world filled with more AI listening, trying to get machines to understand despite an accent can be especially frustrating.
“It’s very frustrating because I talk to my watch, I talk to my husband,” said Eileen Panzardi, a Puerto Rican living in Atlanta. “I talk to my phone, and I have to pass it to my daughter, who was born here in Atlanta, and ask her to say whatever word it is for Siri to understand me because sometimes she don’t even get me.”
Ultimately, the goal of accent-changing technology is to create better person-to-person communication in an ever-increasing, globalized world.
“For me, the key point is not their identity in communication,” said Haulk A, a Kurdish software engineer living in Chicago. “In the communication, the important thing is to the message that you send and the message that you get.”