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I’ve been asked about my experiences of Dragon Naturally Speaking speech recognition software so much recently that it seemed a logical topic for my latest blog post.

I’ve been using Dragon for some 6 or 7 years now and I think I can honestly say it’s been one of the best £50 investments I’ve ever made!

I bought it initially because I was struggling with severe RSI, brought on in the first instance by gardening elbow (like tennis elbow, but caused by shifting 10 tonnes of topsoil in a weekend!). Having weakened my right arm, I found that not only were tennis and badminton difficult without a support, but the pain was exacerbated by constant mouse and keyboard work. It got to the stage where I was typing with a bandage around my arm and wrist, but still it was sometimes too painful to work for long periods. In desperation, I replaced my keyboard and mouse with ergonomic models, I changed my office chair, I consulted a health & safety expert who advised me to change my working position and lower my monitor, plus get a foot rest. All to no avail. I tried acupuncture, which offered short-term relief, but the pain returned when I worked or did certain kinds of exercise.

Then, one day, I decided I should perhaps give speech recognition a go. I had dictated years ago, when I worked in-house in the 1980s, and once I got over the self-consciousness of speaking into a dictaphone and having my work typed up (often with hilarious results) by the typing pool, it was a very efficient way of working. Soon after, it was decreed that we should have our own IBM Displaywrite word processors and dictation gave way to typing – very slowly in my case as I’d never been taught to touch-type. An abortive attempt to go to typing evening classes when I was 16 and in my fourth year at grammar school had led to a summons before the headmistress and a ban on subsequent classes: clever girls don’t need to type! How short-sighted that seems in retrospect…

So, after a little research, I took the plunge and invested in the basic model of Dragon Naturally Speaking. It took me twenty minutes to complete the initial training, as it suggested, and then I was able to type, word-perfectly, a trial letter to my aunt. I was hooked! It occasionally struggled with my Northern vowel sounds, but soon became accustomed to my voice, and I was amazed at how my productivity, as well as my wrist improved. Admittedly, I’m not a fast typist, but in a subject I’m familiar with and straight text, I can easily do 4-5,000 words a day, with my all-time best being 10,000 words – albeit with a CAT tool. That’s not proof-read, of course, but I don’t find that dictating leads to any more errors – quite the contrary, in fact, and what errors there are, are normally completely misrecognised words and therefore easy to spot. As for my sore wrist, Dragon was the solution I was looking for – it succeeded where all else failed, and I now don’t even wear a support on my arm in racquet sports. Quite amazing.

I use Dragon (I’m on Version 11.5 now, although still the Standard model, which is quite adequate for my needs) with both Wordfast Classic and Trados Studio 2009 without any problems. There are some commands in Pandora’s Box in Wordfast to assist Dragon users, such as automatically capitalising the first letter of sentences and another to stop the cursor jumping around in the text, as sometimes happens. Other than that, I tend to use my mouse or keyboard shortcuts for Wordfast commands (Alt Down, Concordance search, etc.), but dictate when the cursor is in each segment. If you want to change a word, Dragon’s own commands are simplicity itself: Cap, All caps, Bold, Spell that, Select ???? and then replace with whatever you want to put instead. I find you have to say “numeral” in front of low numbers if you want the number rather than the word spelled out, as per the English style guides. You can train it to recognise unusual words that come up in your texts, but for certain complicated words, or those it constantly misrecognises, a friend gave me the tip of substituting them with a silly word not otherwise found in your text, say daffodil, and then doing a global find and replace at the end – genius! Dragon works equally well with Trados, though you have to say “Cap” at the start of each sentence – I haven’t yet found a Trados command to automatically capitalise them – and you don’t always want them all capitalised anyway. I also find that in Trados, if I think too long, it types random French quotation marks when it’s waiting for me to speak, which is a little irritating, as you have to delete them before proceeding. It doesn’t always do it, and it’s easy enough to tell Dragon to “Go to sleep” if you know you’re going to be doing some research, then to Wake up” when you’re ready to go.

I have replaced the standard microphone that comes with Dragon for different headsets over the years, as the supplied ones are not brilliant in my opinion. I’ve used the lightweight Logitech ones that go behind your head with great success, but I do find that after a while, they lose sound in one of the earpieces: not so important for dictating, but a pain on Skype calls! My latest acquisition is a Plantronics wireless headset and I’m very impressed with it so far. Lasts for a long time between charges, no wire for me or the dogs to trip over, possibility to work in different positions, and excellent recognition and soundproofing if you’re working in a noisy environment.

The standard version doesn’t work in Excel or PowerPoint files, but as I always work with a CAT tool, that isn’t a problem for me. The more expensive versions do, I believe. I use the English version, but I think that the foreign language versions also come with English as standard, so if there’s any chance of you dictating in another language, do bear that in mind. I don’t always dictate: if I’m working on a more stylistic text, with a lot of creative input, or one with short table entries or PowerPoint text boxes, I find Dragon doesn’t recognise as well. It’s much better with complete, flowing sentences.

As for the art of dictating, I suspect it’s something you have to get used to. I had done it before, so soon got back into it, but it is a different skill, saying your translations out loud, rather than committing them to paper first. I find that very little redrafting is required though, once you’re in the flow – but again, that depends on the level of familiarity with your subject area, I suppose.

All in all, if anyone’s tempted to give speech recognition a go, I’d really recommend it. Whether you’re struggling with RSI, or a bad back, or looking for ways to boost your productivity, it definitely is well worthwhile. And as dragons go, it’s quite tame when you get to know it….

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