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Computer says Irish woman doesn't speak English well enough

Commentary: An Irish veterinarian with two academic degrees who's applying for residence in Australia, can't speak English. Or, perhaps, Australian. Or, perhaps, computerese.

 Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

Personal computer

The computer says "nuh-uh" because it speaks perfect English.

Afrog Design Unit / Getty Images

I try to avoid the word "seriously." Whenever I say it, Siri pipes up with, "How can I help you, Chris?"

It's my vaguely British accent, you see. 

Just as Siri seems to be riven with slight imperfection, so too, it seems, is voice-recognition technology that tests the English skills of applicants for skilled-immigrant visas in Australia.

Louise Kennedy is an Irishwoman married to an Australian. She's been living in Australia for two years. She's a veterinarian with two academic degrees. 

Yet, as she told Ireland's Independent newspaper, a computer insisted her English isn't quite good enough.

She took a government-mandated language test on software created by a company called Pearson. She had to read aloud one paragraph off a screen. She told the Independent the test was "very, very easy." 

She scored a 74. That's out of 90. You need a 79 to automatically qualify for a visa. 

Attempts to contact Kennedy were unsuccessful. However, I asked Pearson whether its robot needs more training in grasping an Irish accent.

"Pearson stands by the reliability of the technology used in the Pearson Test of English," a spokesman told me. Though there is apparently no pass or fail, the minimum acceptable score is a 65. It's the Australian authorities that set the 79 level. 

The spokesman wouldn't be drawn on what it takes to get a 90. Does one have to speak perfect, say, Australian? Or, perhaps, perfect computerese?

The software, I was told, looks at a variety of factors, such as grammar and pronunciation. I have a feeling that many people with two academic degrees have a passable grasp of such things.

"During its development, the Pearson Test of English was field tested using 400,000 spoken responses from more than 10,000 test takers speaking 120 different languages including native English speakers," the company insisted. 

Pearson confirmed that Kennedy was offered a free retake. "That's based on the fact that there was construction work outside of the test center at the time which could be a possible interference," Kennedy told the Independent.

It seems, though, that Kennedy might now have to apply for a spousal visa, which costs 3,000 Australian dollars (around $2,365).

I asked Siri whether she'd passed the Pearson Test of English. 

"Here's what I found for 'Have you passed the person test of English,'" she replied. 

I'm not sure computers have passed the person test yet.

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