Future Tense

Amazon’s Alexa Is Totally Baffled by My Bilingual Family

An Echo dot sits on a pile of books.
Alexa, can you speak Spanglish? Andres Urena/Unsplash

For Christmas this year, we got an Echo. OK, technically it was a gift for my husband, but he knows it’s really for the whole family. Once we freed it from the box, we excitedly gathered around to test our new robot friend. I started with a little small talk: “Hi Alexa. How are you? How’s the weather? What time is it?”

My 5-year-old jumped in to try a skill he must have seen in a commercial: “Alexa, play ‘It’s Raining Tacos.’ ” Soon, we were all dancing to the silly techno song.

Finally, my husband took a turn, “Alexa, cómo estás?” Nothing. Then he decided to try something simpler, “Alexa, hola.” But even the simplest and most known Spanish word was beyond Alexa in English mode. We were surprised and sad to learn that Alexa may not work for our bilingual home.

Alexa has a Spanish mode. But that’s not what we need. My husband’s first language is Spanish—specifically Argentine Spanish—and he speaks English fluently. My first language is English and my Spanish is OK. He and I communicate in Spanglish and are trying to raise our children to be bilingual. When texting on our iPhones, we used to switch the language setting back and forth, but were thrilled when we discovered that the adaptable iOS had quickly learned to accommodate our Spanglish. I naively thought Alexa would learn, too.
But here we are a few weeks later, and it responds to any Spanish instructions with a sad “whoomp” sound or with, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

It’s particularly frustrating because even when speaking English, a lot of our media requests involve Spanish. Trying to get it to play my 2-year-old’s favorite song has us speaking Spanish like tourists trying to sound out words from a phrasebook. “Alexa, play ‘El Pollito Pio’ ” becomes “Alexa, play ‘EL Po yee toe Pee yo.’ ” (Parents of toddlers, I do strongly recommend “El Pollito Pio” if you simply cannot handle another round of “Baby Shark.” It’s a real bop.) And for the life of me I cannot get it to play “La Vaca Lola” even though I know it’s available—every now and then it will pop up when playing random songs. (My toddler is going through a phase where he wants Spanish songs about farm animals and nothing else.)

My family is likely not alone in our frustration. According to the latest census numbers, just over 20 percent of Americans are bilingual—a number that’s been on the rise for the last three decades—and the number of homes like mine with mixed language speakers is higher. Look up “Alexa” and “bilingual” on Twitter and you’ll find a long stream of people complaining about Alexa’s lacking language skills. Recently, I reached out to Amazon to see if it was working on making Alexa bilingual, but a representative said they weren’t able to discuss it at this time.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In August, Google announced that its Google Home was bilingual. Owners can now pair any mix of English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese. While Amazon has dominated the smart speaker market since 2015, Google has been catching up, and a skill gap like this will surely deter potential bilingual customers. I admit that I would have probably purchased a Google Home if I had looked into this issue before diving in. Maybe I should have returned my Echo for a Home when I realized. But even if the spokesperson’s response wasn’t promising, I have to imagine it’s only a matter of time before Alexa is more conversational and can switch between languages. In the meantime, I should probably switch our Echo to Spanish to force myself and my sons to sharpen our own language skills.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.