Saturday, March 27, 2010

Get audio recordings of any foreign language text for free

Earlier, I told you about how to get foreign-language text read to you online for free through computer-generated text-to-speech software. Text-to-speech software still doesn't quite pull off completely native language, so wouldn't it be great if you could actually get a native speaker to record some audio for you?

That's the whole concept behind RhinoSpike, a new, completely free website launched on Thursday by Thomas Hjelm and Peter Carroll, the two guys behind the language-learning blog Babelhut.

Here's how Thomas described RhinoSpike via email:
You submit [the target language] text you want to be read aloud/recorded by a native speaker. It goes into a queue for that language. Native speakers see your request, record their voice and upload the audio file. You download it and add it to your Anki/SRS flashcards or load it onto your MP3 player or do whatever you want to do with it.

You can also record your voice for people learning your native language. Doing so bumps your own requests forward in the queue, so native speakers will see them faster. Help others and you receive help in turn.
Helping others and getting bumped to the front of the line is a nice touch.

Thomas went on to explain how this might be used in conjunction with another of my favorite language-learning sites:
You could think of it like Lang-8 for audio files, except instead of getting corrections you are getting audio for any text you want. In fact, you can use the two sites together. Write a journal entry on Lang-8 and get it corrected by native speakers. Post the corrected journal entry on RhinoSpike and get it read aloud for you by a native speaker. Use the audio file for listening or speaking practice.
This meshes quite nicely with being able to get your own spoken language corrected on Lang-8, but I'd do it a little differently than Thomas suggests. After getting your writing corrected on Lang-8, submit your own audio recording of the text as an entry on Lang-8 with a link to the text on RhinoSpike. Then Lang-8 users can tell you what you're doing wrong on Lang-8 and provide you with a correct recording on RhinoSpike. And I don't think Anki and Lang-8 are the only tools that RhinoSpike will find synergies with. LingQ, for example, is all about having audio paired with text.

For RhinoSpike to be good at what it's trying to do, it'll need to obtain a critical mass of users. Given that it was launched just two days ago, it's nowhere near that point. As of this writing, there aren't more than 80 members on the entire site (4 pages in the profile list, a max of 20 profiles per page).

Given the number of users, it's not surprising that there aren't that many requests for recordings up there yet. Before I added some stuff to the site, there were only 17 audio requests on the audio request page, with Japanese topping off the list with 7 requests. And, of those 17 requests, there were only 6 recordings, and all were in Japanese done by a single user. I recorded four more in English and had my wife do one in Japanese, which made a total of 11 audio recordings in English and Japanese done by two users. Assuming that kind of participation rate is typical, their user numbers need to go way up to make this the kind of tool it has the potential to become.

After putting up my own recordings, I posted a bunch of requests for recordings of texts in six different languages. The same user who did all the other Japanese recordings came almost immediately and fulfilled my Japanese requests as well. The others (Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian) remain unfulfilled. With more users, RhinoSpike could very well become like Lang-8, on which native-speaker input is often immediate but in any case never takes long.

One thing that's probably holding back users on RhinoSpike from adding recordings is that it's a hassle to put the recordings up there. You've gotta record your own audio file and then upload it. They recommend Audacity, but I found it easier to simply record my voice with the Voice Memos app on my iPhone, sync the iPhone with iTunes so that the recording ends up in iTunes' music list, right click on the track in iTunes and convert it from an M4A to an MP3 from the contextual menu, dump the MP3 on my desktop, and then upload the MP3 to RhinoSpike. Recording from directly within the RhinoSpike web app, a feature found on Livemocha, is coming in the next version, but for now anyone who wants to upload audio recordings has to go through the hassle of using some other app to generate the audio file. I don't expect that many users will go through all this work to put up audio recordings.

Another issue that's going to limit users is the number of language localizations. It's currently available in English, Spanish, and Japanese, while it's possible to submit requests in a ton of other languages. I doubt the website will see nearly as many native-speaker members in languages for which it is not localized, so hopefully they'll start the crowdsourcing efforts to localize for various languages, as is common on many language-learning websites.

There are two other things that I noticed that could be improved to make the website easier to use. First, searching for friends is a pain. There's no way to filter the profile list to find native speakers of the language you're learning (and searching for, e.g., "Japanese" or "English" strangely produces no results at all). Second, there's no way to quickly find recordings. I'd love to be able to quickly look at all available recordings in a given language to be able to hear native speech, but there's no easy way to do this. As is, you've gotta click on the request and then, if there's a recording (and that's still a big if), you can listen to it.

Nevertheless, I would pretty much chalk off all of the above to the site still being a just-released web app. The bottom line is that RhinoSpike is a great start for a language-learning tool with a lot of potential, and I hope to do my (self-serving) part in bringing more users to it.

However, there is one thing I still don't get... how the heck did they come up with the name "RhinoSpike"?


  1. One drawback I can see is that, by nature only native-speakers will be encouraged to record, whereas in Lang-8, comments from native and non-native speakers would be welcome.

    I can also foresee that the success of this web service will bring a hard hit to LingQ, unless LingQ gives out more features to its free members.

  2. I'm not so sure that that's a drawback. In Lang-8, I rarely get corrections from non-native speakers, and I think that's just fine. Nor am I particularly interested in getting recordings of non-native speakers for my own use. That said, RhinoSpike could very easily become an audio Lang-8 if learners can start uploading their non-native recordings and get corrected with native recordings.

    I'm not so sure that this will hit LingQ so hard. LingQ's audio-with-text content tends to be a lot longer than what I expect to see on RhinoSpike, so for now I imagine they'll be more complementary than competitive, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the features begin to compete more directly at some point in the future.

  3. I think it would be useful also to let people specify which type of accent they have. I noticed the French recording that you requested is Quebecois French and if students are going to use this to help with their pronunciation on assignments or something, they might be marked down if they learn a different/non-standard/"not what the teacher wants" accent.

    I know some students still get marked down for speaking with an American accent when their teachers demand a British one (in certain French schools), which I find totally unfair anyway... especially since I teach American English!

    Plus it would just be interesting, linguistically, to listen to and compare the different accents.

  4. I was wondering why that French didn't quite match up with the French I learned in Toulouse.

    But I agree completely agree. The recordings I did are of course in my American accent, and someone who's about to go study abroad in London might not find them so useful.

  5. Vincent,

    Thank you for such an in depth review! We're glad you took the time to check out the site and investigate it quite deeply.

    You hit the nail on the head. The utility of Rhinospike will depend on the size and activity of its userbase. Building a native recorder and localizing the site are very high priorities for us. We want the site to be accessible and easy to use. Thank you for suggesting crowd-sourcing the localization. That's a great idea and we'll look into it right away.

    Reading about your experience searching for friends and recordings was really helpful. I noticed too, when I received a recording for my own Japanese audio request that I had to jump through a few hoops to write a thank you message back. Browsing recordings by language is a good idea too. I'm adding these to our to-fix list.

    Regarding LingQ, I think Rhinospike and LingQ can be a great combination. LingQ relies a lot on user-submitted content, and before it was really only possible to submit content in your native language, due to the audio requirement. Now a LingQ user can find some text in a foreign language, use RhinoSpike to get audio for it and import/share on LingQ to take advantage of the lingqing system (and get free points to use on LingQ tutors).

    Thanks again for your feedback, and for helping to spread the word! We crossed the 100 user mark today and some of your other Audio Requests appear to have received recordings already!

  6. I tried uploading an mp3 file and it hanged my Chrome. I tried it multiple times and it still behaved the same.

    BTW, do you know snapvine is shutting down? Now, how do we record audios and let others review? Livemocha does not allow customized audio content right?

  7. @Edwin: Your comment was quite timely, as I was already in the midst of drafting a post on how to get your audio recordings checked on Lang-8 now that Snapvine is down, and that post can be found here. And, no, Livemocha unfortunately does not allow customized audio content, although I suppose you could go on there and record whatever you want.

  8. @Vincent: Since your review we have done a small update to Rhinospike addressing some of the issues you raised:

    1) Friends are now searchable by native language, study language, location and username. Moreover, when you receive a recording from another user, the notification in your inbox has a link to their profile and a link you can press to send them a thank you message.

    2) You can now list Recordings by language and listen to them right away.

    Thanks for the suggestions!

    @Edwin: I just tried uploading an mp3 file in Chrome and it went through fine. I'll try to get in touch with you to find out what went wrong.