Four relatively quick ways to improve your phone's voice recognition

How to speak, what you can say, and how to personalize your dictionary.

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See? Phones can even get "Gazpacho," if you know how to talk to them.

Image via Flickr/janitors

When voice recognition first arrived on phones, I thought it would, like most things that phones learn to do, make the world a notably worse place.

And then voice recognition shook out to be, like most things, something that just makes rude people a little more noticeably rude. Assuming you don't try to dictate a text in line at the grocery store, or loudly speak-write an email while walking your dog in a city neighborhood, voice typing can be convenient. It's handy around the house, in an enclosed office space, or when you're parked in a car. When it works, that is, which is a pretty big exception.

Speech recognition is magic when it works, but it can instantly become a sign of our awful web dependence when it fails. Sometimes it fails because of network connections or computer oddities. Often times, though, it fails because of us. Our speaking, our word choices, our failure to check the microphone port for bread crumbs.

As you might have guessed by now, I am going to lightly lay some Pro Tips on you and your phone talking. Fear not: they are real tips, based on actual fixes, and none of them ask you to stop using the word "literally" in incorrect fashion. Though, also: stop that.

Speak slower, but conversationally

The makers of speech recognition software, the tuners of algorithms, build them and test them for normal people speaking normally. Meanwhile, we grab our phones, click the little microphone, and Talk ... Like ... We Are ... On ... The Phone ... To An In-Fant ... Across ... the Wor-ld.

That's what I learned when I interviewed speech typing experts at Google and Nuance, maker of Dragon (and almost certainly Apple's speech-tech provider) nearly three years ago. Their advice stuck with me, and I've become a lot better at voice typing since then.

In short:

  • Speak at your normal pace and tone, because speech software will train itself to your cadence and tones.
  • Think a bit before you speak, because backing up and fixing speech disfluencies is painful.

Add words to your dictionary

There are a lot of weird towns and roads and things around my home base of Buffalo, NY. The airport is in Cheektowaga, the 290 (yes, we say "the [road]" around here) takes you up to Tonawanda, and the suburbs are mostly The Northtowns and The Southtowns. My phone, when I first booted it up, had no idea about these things. But I taught my phone my weird words, and you can do likewise. And it works for voice recognition typing, too.

iPhones/iPads: If you type out a word a few times, and refuse the autocorrect offering each time, your Apple device will eventually learn that word or phrase. If you want to manually teach your phone a word, you dig into Settings > General > Keyboard > Shortcuts, then add the word as a "shortcut".

Android devices: For most keyboards and phones: Type the word into any app that takes text. The weird word you're typing will appear just above the keyboard as one of the auto-complete options, even though your phone doesn't know it. Finish the word, tap that word, tap it again (when prompted with "Tap again to save," then confirm your weird word. Or you can manually enter all the oddities you want with Settings > Language & Keyboard > Personal Dictionary > "+" button.

Cheektowaga, Android. It's Cheek-toh-wah-gah.

Image by author

Know your voice punctuation

One thing that often breaks up my casual, easier-to-translate flow is thinking about punctuation. Which is too bad, because iPhones and Androids can usually handle whatever you throw at them, presuming you say the right thing.

iPhone/iPad: Jim Rhoades, developer and proprietor of the Crush Apps blog, totally covered the heck out of every punctuation you can say to Siri/dictation. He takes his cue from Dragon Dictation, an app from the firm that (all-but-confirmed-ly) powers Apple's voice recognition tools.

Android: Android's voice recognition is not quite as robust with its punctuation powers. A blog post by The Droid Lawyer lists most of the known Android speech to text punctuation. Unlike any other time I link or recommend something, I do suggest reading the comments there for more tips and nuance.

Android only: set up offline recognition

On your Android device, head into Settings, then "Language & Keyboard" (or "Language & Input" on some devices). Look for the "Google Voice typing" input method, and tap on it. Inside this mini-menu, be sure to click on "Offline speech recognition" and ensure that your phone has downloaded the offline version of your language. No reason not to, really.

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