Multilingual Speech Processing


Alexander Waibel
Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA
and Universität des Karlsruhe, Germany

Multilinguality need not be textual only, but will take on spoken form, when information services are to extend beyond national boundaries, or across language groups. Database access by speech will need to handle multiple languages to service customers from different language groups within a country or travelers from abroad. Public service operators (emergency, police, department of transportation, telephone operators, and others) in the US, Japan and the EU frequently receive requests from foreigners unable to speak the national language.
Multilingual spoken language services is a growing industry, but so far these services rely exclusively on human operators. Telephone companies in the United States (e.g., AT&T Language Line), Europe and Japan now offer language translation services over the telephone, provided by human operators. Movies and foreign television broadcasts are routinely translated and delivered either by lipsynchronous speech (dubbing), subtitles or multilingual transcripts. The drive to automate information services, therefore, produces a growing need for automated multilingual speech processing.
The difficulties of speech processing are compounded with multilingual systems, and few if any commercial multilingual speech services exist to date. Yet intense research activity in areas of potential commercial interest are underway. These are aiming at:

Spoken Language Identification.
By determining a speaker's language automatically, callers could be routed to human translation services. This is of particular interest to public services such as police, government offices (immigration service, drivers license offices, etc.) and experiments are underway in Japan and some regions of the US. The technical state of the art will be reviewed in the next section;

Multilingual Speech Recognition and Understanding.
Future Spoken Language Services could be provided in multiple languages. Dictation systems and spoken language database access systems, for example, could operate in multiple languages, and deliver text or information in the language of the input speech.

Speech Translation.
This ambitious possibility is still very much a research area, but could eventually lead to communication assistance in the form of portable voice activated dictionaries, phrase books or spoken language translators, telephone based speech translation services and/or automatic translation of foreign broadcasts and speeches. There is a wide spectrum of possibilities, but their full realization as commercial products still requires considerable research well into the next decade and beyond.

Multilingual Speech Recognition and Understanding

The last decade has seen much progress in performance of speech recognition systems from cumbersome small vocabulary isolated word systems to large vocabulary continuous speech recognition (LV-CSR) over essentially unlimited vocabularies (50,000 words and more). Similarly, spoken language understanding systems now exist that process spontaneously spoken queries, although only in limited task domains under benign recording conditions (high quality, single speaker, no noise). A number of researchers have been encouraged by this state of affairs to extend these systems to other languages. They have studied similarities as well as differences across languages and improved the universality of current speech technologies.

Large Vocabulary Continuous Speech Recognition (LV-CSR).
A number of LV-CSR systems developed originally for one language have now been extended to several languages, including systems developed by IBM, Dragon Systems, Philips and Olivetti and LIMSI. The extension of these systems to English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Greek illustrates that current speech technology does generalize to different languages, provided sufficiently large transcribed speech databases are available. The research results show that similar modeling assumptions hold across languages with a few interesting exceptions. Differences in recognition performance are observed across languages, partially due to greater acoustic confusability (e.g., English), greater number of homonyms (e.g., French) and greater number of compound nouns and inflections (e.g., German). Such differences place a different burden on acoustic modeling vs. language modeling, vs. the dictionary, or increase confusability, respectively. Also, a recognition vocabulary is not as easily defined as a unit for processing in languages such as Japanese and Korean, where pictographs, the absence of spaces, and large numbers of particles complicate matters.

Multilingual Spoken Language Systems
While LV-CSR systems tackle large vocabularies, but assume benign speaking styles (read speech), spoken language systems currently assume smaller domains and vocabularies, but require unrestricted speaking style. Spontaneous speech significantly degrades performance over read speech as it is more poorly articulated, grammatically ill-formed and garbled by noise. ARPA's Spoken Language projects have attacked this problem by focusing increasingly on the extraction of the semantic content of an utterance rather than accurate transcription. One such system, that has recently been extended to other languages is MIT's Voyager system. It was designed to handle information delivery tasks and can provide directions to nearby restaurants in Cambridge and also for airline travel information (ATIS). It has recently been extended to provide output in languages other than English. Researchers at LIMSI have developed a similar system for French (also airline travel information), thereby providing extension to French on the input side as well. Availability of recognition capabilities in multiple languages have also recently led to interesting new language, speaker and gender identification strategies. Transparent language identification could enhance the application of multilingual spoken language systems.
Despite the encouraging beginnings, multilingual spoken language systems still have to be improved before they can be deployed on a broad commercially feasible scale. Prototype systems have so far only been tested in benign recording situations, on very limited domains, with cooperative users, and without significant noise. Extending this technology to field situations will require increases in robustness as well as consideration of the human factors aspects of multilingual interface design.