Yandex Launches "SoundsEasy" Skill for Intelligent Assistant to Help Children with Speech Disorders

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Yandex, a technology company that builds intelligent products and services powered by machine learning, has launched a skill for its intelligent assistant that helps children with speech disorders. "SoundsEasy" allows children to use Alice-enabled devices to practice their pronunciation skills.

As Yandex continuously creates innovations, they're exploring more ways their intelligent ecosystem can also provide tools for children and their parents. Yandex's intelligent assistant, Alice, has been central to this effort, offering educational and developmental support through skills such as “guess the animal” and math games that promote cognitive learning. Last year, their in-house creative team set out to create a skill for Alice that would specifically address an important childhood development issue in Russia using Yandex AI. Today, after a year developing and testing interactive songs with a team of speech therapists, Yandex is proud to introduce parents, children, and teachers to SoundsEasy, a skill for Alice designed to help children with speech disorders and other early speech impediments.

According to Russia’s former Minister of Education, nearly 60% of school children struggle with speech problems. Yandex learned that speech disorders are particularly challenging to tackle in Russia due to a lack of qualified speech therapists, and many parents are unaware of the issues and their impact. In many cases, early speech problems can lead to other developmental concerns that lead to consequences later in life, such as speech impediments. The creative team started researching how they could help improve this with Yandex technologies. While correcting speech needs to be managed by professionals, a skill for Alice could help children practice sounds and form better habits through repetition.

SoundsEasy offers a selection of catchy and fun songs for forming proper speech habits through interactive recitation with fun characters led by Yandex AI. Each SoundsEasy training exercise has three parts – the warm-up, syllable practice, and repeating lines from the songs. Using Yandex speech recognition, Alice carefully listens to the speaker and then compares what it hears with the correct pronunciation of the lyrics. Alice then kindly suggests the child repeat the phrase if it doesn’t match what the assistant is expecting to hear. The characters within SoundsEasy rely on Yandex speech synthesis technologies to naturally interact with children on the content, providing stories, feedback, and encouragement.

Together with a team of speech pathologists, poets, local pop stars, and psychologists, Yandex created SoundsEasy to help improve the current and future lives of children with speech disorders. Speech pathologists provided their expertise to design songs for practicing different sounds, ensuring songs don’t mix difficult sounds that would be overly challenging for listeners. Using the guidelines for writing the songs, poets advised on the lyrics and pop artists recorded catchy songs that are similar to modern pop hits.

Yandex then developed characters with a unique personality for each pop star called Soundies. They designed the Soundies to combat issues such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, or stage fright that are often a result of speech problems. For instance, Soundies explain why performing on stage is fun and not scary. Yandex also integrated new lyrics into familiar songs from the popular Fixiki cartoon. Fixies characters, which millions of children across Russia already know and love, introduce listeners to exciting technologies and futuristic professions such as “Drone Racer,” and they’ll now be able to help children practice their speech.

Psychologists provided feedback for adjustments, such as adding more encouragement. The characters now offer more praise, and Yandex introduced other motivational features. Children get a coloring exercise upon completing songs, which serves to also stimulate motor skills. SoundsEasy also aims to promote other essential learning values, such as reading and writing.

Children were also some of the most important collaborators. Through user experience testing, their feedback helped Yandex refine the skill; for example, through their testing, Yandex observed how antsy and excited children tend to be, which is why they added interactive activities to occupy them through the speaking exercises. More importantly, though, the testing period allowed Yandex to see firsthand how much value this new tool will bring to their lives. Several of the children who tested the skill returned home to continue trying it out with their families on their own Alice-enabled devices.

Not only will millions of children and parents benefit from using this interactive Alice skill at home or on the go, kindergartens and other early childhood education centers’ in Moscow will begin using SoundsEasy as part of their curriculum. Speech therapists will also be able to utilize SoundsEasy for Alice by assigning certain songs for children to practice at home, and Yandex hopes to soon incorporate SoundsEasy in teaching curriculums at schools across Russia.

Yandex hopes SoundsEasy raises more awareness of children’s development issues and speech disorders specifically. The company is excited for all the ways SoundsEasy and future AI innovations will help advance childhood development.

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Melissa McDonald
Yandex
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