Finally, in July 2012, the Maltese Speech Synthesiser will be available for free download for the Maltese speaking community across the world. The Speech Synthesiser transforms electronic text into spoken Maltese, providing additional support to Maltese speaking people, including disabled people, such as blind people, as well as people with low vision or dyslexia.
Back in February 2010, KPMG Crimsonwing developed a Speech Synthesis software specifically targeting the Maltese language. This project was part financed by the European Union Regional Development Fund (ERDF), to a co-financing rate of 85% EU Funds and 15% National Funds. This tender was issued by the Foundation for Information Technology Accessibility (FITA), with the primary aim of enabling people with disability to read and write Maltese electronic text through the use of existing speech enabled software, in conjunction with the Maltese Speech Synthesiser. Roger Davies-Barrett, Project Manager for ERDF114 said that “from the moment that KPMG Crimsonwing was awarded the contract, I was pleased to be dealing with a ‘serious’ company who had a good reputation in the development market here in Malta.”
Whilst speech synthesis technologies for English and other major languages have a long history, there is currently no equivalent for the Maltese language, and hence, this software will be the first of its kind. The final product will consist of a suite of three voices: an adult male, an adult female and a male child.
A key requirement for the synthesiser, which is developed for the Microsoft Windows platform, is compliance with Microsoft’s Speech Application Programming Interface (SAPI). This is a software standard that ensures compatibility with a wide variety of assistive and educational software applications available on the Windows platform. The software supports Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 32bit and 64bit editions.
The Maltese Speech Synthesiser is being developed as a series of prototypes culminating in a finalised product that is slated for release in July 2012. It will be available for free download from a specifically developed website, or alternatively a CD with the program can be requested from FITA.
The first prototype, presented in August 2010, was a rudimentary system featuring a male voice, and based on academic research carried out at the University of Malta. This prototype was not intended for further development, but served KPMG Crimsonwing on two fronts: to build a clear picture of the development requirements, and to cement confidence in KPMG Crimsonwing’s abilities to deliver the final software.
The second prototype, presented in March 2011, was architected from scratch to serve as the basis for the final product. It featured improved language analysis for proper handling of ambiguities in the text, and higher quality audio output, based on a new male voice recorded in a professional sound studio. The language analysis process is driven by a lexicon: a comprehensive word dictionary that contains information such as the exact (phonetic) spelling of each word, the word’s part of speech, syllabication and stress information. Each voice actor was required to read a 15,000 word script, specially compiled from an initial 20 million word corpus, statistically representative of the sounds in the Maltese language. During development of this prototype, a sound processing tool was specially developed to enable KPMG Crimsonwing to build a sound database for each voice from the recorded script renditions.
The third prototype, presented in October 2011, featured a larger lexicon and sound database for the male voice, and the introduction of a female and child voice databases. Jeffrey Bezzina, Project Manager at KPMG Crimsonwing commented “It’s thrilling – hearing the male, female and child voices, coming out of the new Maltese Speech Synthesiser tool. Testers are already choosing their preferred voice.” This prototype also saw the introduction of an intonation model of the Maltese language, resulting in more natural sounding speech, and the verbalisation of numbers, emails and other such types of textual representations. As explained by Roger Davies-Barrett, Project
Manager for ERDF114 “the aim has always been to get as close to natural speech as possible and you only have to listen to the English engines trying to pronounce Maltese text to realise how much better the Synthesiser we’ve developed is. Many e-government websites will now be fully accessible to Maltese speaking people who previously gave up due to badly pronounced Maltese.”
The final system will eventually feature fully compiled sound databases for the three voices, an even larger lexicon, improved language processing and control of volume, speaking rate and pitch. The software will also undergo a series of performance tuning exercises to improve the overall efficiency and responsiveness of the synthesiser. Throughout the project, KPMG Crimsonwing has been working closely disabled persons using assistive technology, as well as teachers and trainers in order to insure the functionality of the engine.
Michael Micallef, who is blind and is carrying out internal testing on behalf of FITA, stated it is now a great pleasure to listen to Maltese text and feels that the end result of this project will have a “great impact on Maltese society as for the first time, elderly people and illiterate persons will have the possibility to read the online Maltese newspapers and last but not least, blind people now have the possibility to read Maltese text which sounds pleasant to the ear”
Due to its specialist nature, this project has proved to be a welcome challenge for KPMG Crimsonwing, but also a rewarding endeavour, not only in terms of technical accomplishment, but also as a civic contribution to Maltese society. “I felt excited and proud at the same time when I heard about the project. It’s about time that we have something that can give a boost to the spoken language of Maltese” said Michael Micallef.
About KPMG Crimsonwing
KPMG Crimsonwing is an international business & IT solutions provider that supports organisations in business transformations enabled by technology. Our work focuses on Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), eCommerce and IT integration. Using our business and IT expertise we can help automate and transform organisations with the established business technology solutions of Microsoft, Intershop and Magento and a wide range of professional services.
KPMG Crimsonwing consists of more than 350 skilled employees, offers 24/7 support services and has a near-shore centre in Malta. Together with KPMG’s global network of member firms clients can benefit from a broad professional palette of business services, enabled by technology.
The Foundation for Information Technology Accessibility (FITA) is the principal advocate and coordinator for making information communications technology (ICT) accessible for disabled people in the Maltese islands. Through empowerment and social inclusion disabled persons need to rely less on family and state support. In ensuring that due steps are taken to minimize the digital divide, FITA enables individuals to contribute productively to society and the economy. For further details, please go to www.fitamalta.eu.