Scottish children with a range of communications difficulties will be able to speak in their native tongues thanks to updated speech technology.

Until now, children in Scotland have only been able to use specialist assisted voice technology with American or English accents. But thanks to Edinburgh-based Text-to-Speech specialist CereProc – working on behalf of CALL Scotland, a research and service unit based in the University of Edinburgh, they will now be able to communicate using the new synthesised voices of ‘Andrew’ and ‘Mairi’, which have Scottish accents.

The voices are available free of charge to all government-funded organisations in Scotland, allowing young people with speech difficulties to access them at no cost. 

Around 330,000 people in the UK need communication tools to help them speak, due to a variety of diseases and illnesses, from dyslexia, to motor neurone disease, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis. Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) tools are used to supplement and improve limited communication skills – however, until now there hasn’t been youth voices available for children with a Scottish accent. 

CALL Scotland is primarily funded by the Scottish Government and helps children and young people to overcome disability and barriers to learning. Users have access to a boy’s voice and a girl’s voice, both developed by recording two 11-year-old child actors, who grew up close to Edinburgh. There are also two additional voices – Callum and Isla – that can be used by teenagers.

Under the licencing scheme funded by Scottish Government, CereProc has made the voices available free of licencing charges to manufacturers of AAC equipment with the aim of reducing the cost of AAC equipment and making it more accessible to those in need. In recent years, an increasing number of tablet devices have been able to use text-to-speech technology, which has helped make it more available and widespread. For conditions where users are unable to use keyboards, they can use either switch-operated or eye tracking.

Paul Nisbet, Director of CALL Scotland, said: “We are very excited about the release of Andrew and Mairi, the new Scottish child computer voices, which are now available from our Scottish Voice web site alongside Heather and Stuart, CereProc’s adult voices, and Ceitidh, the Scottish Gaelic voice.

“Previously, children in Scotland who use communication aids had a choice of speaking with the adult Scottish voices, or of using child voices with English or American accents. From today, they at last have the option to use a voice that is appropriate for their age, culture and nationality. The voices are designed for communication but can also be used by children and young people with dyslexia or visual impairment to read digital textbooks from CALL’s Books for All Database, curriculum resources, or the SQA Digital Question Papers which were developed by CALL and SQA in 2008.

“New legislation gives children and adults with communication needs in Scotland the right to voice output technology: having a high quality Scottish voice is an essential component and so we are very pleased to have been able to work with Scottish Government, CereProc and AAC manufacturers to make this happen.”    

The release of the new voices is the latest development in AAC technology, which is improving rapidly following the recent introduction of AAC legislation by the Scottish Government. As of March 2018, access to communication equipment and support is a legal right for any person who has lost their voice or has difficulty speaking, thanks largely to the efforts of motor neurone disease campaigner Gordon Aikman. As such, Scotland is currently leading the way in AAC technology.

Dr Matthew Aylett, CereProc’s Chief Scientific Officer, said: “Having a voice and being heard is critical to children, their confidence, their quality of life and their self-esteem, but many medical conditions rob us of speech. These new synthesised voices are the next best thing after their own, allowing Scottish children to sound like Scottish children instead of adults from England or the United States.”

“Parents and guardians can easily access these voices from their local authority at no cost and use them with existing AAC tools, allowing their children or children in their care to talk with friends and family, sing along to their favourite songs and truly project their personality. 

“The team here at CereProc couldn’t be prouder to help on this incredibly important project and will be continuing to develop more voices that let people, young or old, find their voice again.”