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Microsoft Cortana expands to French, Italian, German and Spanish

New languages are available to Windows Phone developers willing to help Microsoft's voice assistant learn how to better communicate.

Microsoft's Cortana is expanding its language skills. CNET

Microsoft's Cortana voice assistant is traveling to more countries so it can chat in more languages.

Slated to roll out on Friday, an update to Microsoft's Windows Phone Developer Preview will see Cortana support French, Italian, German and Spanish.

But the new languages won't be available to the average Windows Phone 8.1 user. Rather, the update is being rolled out as an "alpha" version only to subscribers of the Developer Preview. In the world of software development, alpha is the initial step before a product can move onto the beta stage.

Microsoft's goal behind this alpha rollout is to encourage Windows Phone developers to use Cortana in the new languages to beef up its conversation skills. Specifically, developers need only chat with Cortana in the new languages, according to Cortana Group Program Manager Marcus Ash, and it should automatically expand its prowess over time. Such a pilot program is needed before Cortana can effectively communicate in the new languages with all users of Microsoft's latest mobile OS.

Introduced in Windows Phone 8.1 earlier this year, Cortana is Microsoft's answer, or challenge, to Apple's Siri and Google's Google Now. All three try to help you use your mobile device in a hands-free mode by responding to questions and running tasks in response to your voice. Cortana's current repertoire of languages can't match those of Siri or Google Now.

Siri supports around 10 different languages across 15 different countries, including French, German, Japanese, Italian and Korean. Google Now can chat with you in around 52 different languages. In contrast, Cortana officially understands only US English, UK English and Chinese.

In the mobile OS arena, Windows Phone is currently a distant third to Google's Android and Apple's iOS with a global market share of less than 3 percent. Increasing the number of languages that Cortana supports is one way to try to boost global sales of Windows Phone handsets. Expanding Cortana's availability across other countries has also been a top request based on feedback from Windows Phone users, according to Ash.

So how can you chat with Cortana in the new languages? First, you have to register as a Windows Phone developer with Microsoft. That means you need to try to develop some type of app for the OS. Second, you must download and install the Preview for Developers app, which gives you access to new features in advance of other Windows Phone users.

The alpha status for the new update means that some of the features slated for the beta version are not yet available.

"For example, flight tracking is not available at this time for alpha," Ash said. "Transit data is currently limited to larger cities and will expand as we have more data. Additionally, reference data (e.g. "How tall is Mt. Everest") is also not available - but we're working hard to enable this soon!"

When can Windows Phone users expect a beta of Cortana to support the new languages? A specific date most likely relies on how quickly and successfully the alpha program progresses. But Microsoft does have the beta on its to-do list.

"Over time, we are planning to make Cortana available as a beta in France, Italy, Germany, and Spain just like in the US, China, and UK and we're dedicated to helping more people around the world get access to Cortana, the truly personal digital assistant," Ash said.