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This is how I get Google Assistant to understand unpronouncable town names
If you live outside the US, you’ve probably hit this problem with Google Assistant and smart speakers more than once: Getting voice recognition to understand a very local person or town name is an exercise in frustration. You try to pronounce it the native way, then you try to guess how an English-taught AI machine would pronounce it, then you eventually curse and decide to type the question on your phone or computer instead of wasting more time with voice commands.
I know this has happened to me weekly, if not daily. My biggest problem, when I used to live in Lebanon, was inquiring about the weather in two towns I visited pretty often. The first is called Ballouneh and pronounced like Balloon’eh, while the second is Qlayaat and… Well… Let’s just say that it can be spelled in dozens of ways ranging from Qleiat to Koleyat, and you don’t want to know how it’s pronounced. Assistant was never good at recognizing either of these, no matter how I enunciated them.
I often had trouble getting Assistant to understand me when I pronounced two Lebanese town names.
Eventually, it occurred to me that I could do a similar thing to what I’ve done for my Arabic-named family members and teach Google a shortcut, in a way. I don’t say “call Ibrahim El Khoury,” I say “call dad,” so it stands to reason that I could just say “what’s the weather in the mountain” instead of trying — and failing — to articulate Qlayaat in any machine-friendly fashion.
Since Google Assistant doesn’t support location shortcuts except for “home” and “work,” I set out to create my own shortcuts, through Assistant routines.
If you don’t know how those work, you have to head to Google Assistant settings (either from the main Google app or Google Home app), then tap Routines > New > Personal or Household (depending on whether you want other home members to use this shortcut too). Then, Add starter > When I say to Google Assistant and type “What’s the weather in the mountain” and tap Add starter. And finally Add action > Try adding your own and type “what’s the weather in Qlayaat Lebanon” and tap Done.
Routines act like shortcuts, so you can replace any problematic town name with simpler words like town, mountain, or lake.
Of course, you can vary the keywords here, from mountain to beach to ice to lake (or use any other triggering sentence you prefer) and insert any town name you often visit in the action component. The trick is in spelling it correctly as Google Search would recognize it.
Now, all I need to do is ask Assistant “what’s the weather in the mountain?” and it’ll tell me the weather in Qlayaat. “In the mountain” certainly rolls off the tongue better and the risk of Assistant failing to understand that is super, super low. I even tried the trick with Llanfairpwllgwyngyll in Wales and Qeqertarsuatsiaat in Greenland and it worked in both.
I personally use this routine trick for weather updates in specific Lebanese towns, but you can try it for driving directions or looking up restaurants too in towns with unpronounceable names.
Routines can also act as shortcuts for any other question that you may find difficult to enunciate or that Assistant has trouble understanding. The only issue is that you have to create a new routine for each of these shortcuts — an annoying and time-consuming process. On the upside, though, Google already understands “home” and “work” so the odds of you frequently asking about other towns with unpronounceable names are likely low.