B. Phone Models
Training a machine to recognize spoken language amounts to modeling the basic sounds of speech (phones). Automatic speech recognition strings together these models to form words. Recognizing an incoming speech signal involves matching the observed acoustic sequence with a set of HMM models. An HMM can model either phones or other sub-word units or it can model words or even whole sentences. Phones are either modeled as individual sounds--so-called monophones--or as phone combinations that model several phones and the transitions between them (biphones or triphones). After comparing the incoming acoustic signal with the HMMs representing the sounds of language, the system computes a hypothesis based on the sequence of models that most closely resembles the incoming signal. The HMM model for each linguistic unit (phone or word) contains a probabilistic representation of all the possible pronunciations for that unit--just as the model of the handwritten cursive b would have many different representations. Building HMMs--a process called training--requires a large amount of speech data of the type the system is expected to recognize. Large-vocabulary speaker-independent continuous dictation systems are typically trained on tens of thousands of read utterances by a cross-section of the population, including members of different dialect regions and age-groups. As a general rule, an automatic speech recognizer cannot correctly process speech that differs in kind from the speech it has been trained on. This is why most commercial dictation systems, when trained on standard American English, perform poorly when encountering accented speech, whether by non-native speakers or by speakers of different dialects. We will return to this point in our discussion of voice-interactive CALL applications.
The lexicon, or dictionary, contains the phonetic spelling for all the words that are expected to be observed by the recognizer. It serves as a reference for converting the phone sequence determined by the search algorithm into a word. It must be carefully designed to cover the entire lexical domain in which the system is expected to perform. If the recognizer encounters a word it does not "know" (i.e., a word not defined in the lexicon), it will either choose the closest match or return an out-of-vocabulary recognition error. Whether a recognition error is registered as a misrecognition or an out-of-vocabulary error depends in part on the vocabulary size. If, for example, the vocabulary is too small for an unrestricted dictation task--let's say less than 3K--the out-of-vocabulary errors are likely to be very high. If the vocabulary is too large, the chance of misrecognition errors increases because with more similar-sounding words, the confusability increases. The vocabulary size in most commercial dictation systems tends to vary between 5K and 60K.
D. The Language Model
The language model predicts the most likely continuation of an utterance on the basis of statistical information about the frequency in which word sequences occur on average in the language to be recognized. For example, the word sequence A bare attacked him will have a very low probability in any language model based on standard English usage, whereas the sequence A bear attacked him will have a higher probability of occurring. Thus the language model helps constrain the recognition hypothesis produced on the basis of the acoustic decoding just as the context helps decipher an unintelligible word in a handwritten note. Like the HMMs, an efficient language model must be trained on large amounts of data, in this case texts collected from the target domain.
In ASR applications with constrained lexical domain and/or simple task definition, the language model consists of a grammatical network that defines the possible word sequences to be accepted by the system without providing any statistical information. This type of design is suitable for CALL applications in which the possible word combinations and phrases are known in advance and can be easily anticipated (e.g., based on user data collected with a system pre-prototype). Because of the a priori constraining function of a grammar network, applications with clearly defined task grammars tend to perform at much higher accuracy rates than the quality of the acoustic recognition would suggest.
Simply put, the decoder is an algorithm that tries to find the utterance that maximizes the probability that a given sequence of speech sounds corresponds to that utterance. This is a search problem, and especially in large vocabulary systems careful consideration must be given to questions of efficiency and optimization, for example to whether the decoder should pursue only the most likely hypothesis or a number of them in parallel (Young, 1996). An exhaustive search of all possible completions of an utterance might ultimately be more accurate but of questionable value if one has to wait two days to get a result. Trade-offs are therefore necessary to maximize the search results while at the same time minimizing the amount of CPU and recognition time.
PERFORMANCE AND DESIGN ISSUES IN SPEECH APPLICATIONS
For educators and developers interested in deploying ASR in CALL applications, perhaps the most important consideration is recognition performance: How good is the technology? Is it ready to be deployed in language learning? These questions cannot be answered except with reference to particular applications of the technology, and therefore touch on a key issue in ASR development: the issue of human-machine interface design.
As we recall, speech recognition performance is always domain specific--a machine can only do what it is programmed to do, and a recognizer with models trained to recognize business news dictation under laboratory conditions will be unable to handle spontaneous conversational speech transmitted over noisy telephone channels. The question that needs to be answered is therefore not simply "How good is ASR technology?" but rather, "What do we want to use it for?" and "How do we get it to perform the task?"
In the following section, we will address the issue of system performance as it relates to a number of successful commercial speech applications. By emphasizing the distinction between recognizer performance on the one hand--understood in terms of "raw" recognition accuracy--and system performance on the other; we suggest how the latter can be optimized within an overall design that takes into account not only the factors that affect recognizer performance as such, but also, and perhaps even more importantly, considerations of human-machine interface design.
Historically, basic speech recognition research has focused almost exclusively on optimizing large vocabulary speaker-independent recognition of continuous dictation. A major impetus for this research has come from US government sponsored competitions held annually by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The main emphasis of these competitions has been on improving the "raw" recognition accuracy--calculated in terms of average omissions, insertions, and substitutions--of large-vocabulary continuous speech recognizers (LVCSRs) in the task of recognizing read sentence material from a number of standard sources (e.g., The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times). The best laboratory systems that participated in the WSJ large-vocabulary continuous dictation task have achieved word error rates as low as 5%, that is, on average, one recognition error in every twenty words (Pallet, 1994).
CURRENT TRENDS IN VOICE-INTERACTIVE CALL
In recent years, an increasing number of speech laboratories have begun deploying speech technology in CALL applications. Results include voice-interactive prototype systems for teaching pronunciation, reading, and limited conversational skills in semi-constrained contexts. Our review of these applications is far from exhaustive. It covers a select number of mostly experimental systems that explore paths we found promising and worth pursuing. We will discuss the range of voice-interactions these systems offer for practicing certain language skills, explain their technical implementation, and comment on the pedagogical value of these implementations. Apart from giving a brief system overview, we report experimental results if available and provide an assessment of how far away the technology is from being deployed in the commercial and educational environments.
A useful and remarkably successful application of speech recognition and processing technology has been demonstrated by a number of research and commercial laboratories in the area of pronunciation training. Voice-interactive pronunciation tutors prompt students to repeat spoken words and phrases or to read aloud sentences in the target language for the purpose of practicing both the sounds and