Personal Business: HOME SOFTWARE LANGUAGES
Having retained only a few simple phrases of high school French--ouvrez la fentre leaps to mind--I've been eager to give the language another shot. Now, thanks to several capable CD-ROM programs for Macintosh or IBM-type PCs, even weekend students like me can learn to speak and understand foreign tongues with some proficiency.
The programs are no substitute for live instruction. But used with other methods, the CD-ROMs can be powerful learning aids that offer distinct advantages over other solo forms of instruction, including books or audio tapes. By blending sound, graphics, animation, and the enormous storage capabilities of CD-ROMs, they can "offer something that closely approximates a real language experience," says Maureen Arneaud, director of learning technologies at Berlitz International. Students can hear proper pronunciations or click on a word to have a look at its meaning.
You can also test your accent. Most programs let you record (with a microphone) and play back your voice in response to drills, although the practice may be only as good as your untrained ear. The TriplePlayPlus! programs from Syracuse Language Systems--available in French, German, Spanish, English, and, in June, Hebrew--come with mikes and employ automatic speech-recognition technology licensed from Dragon Systems. Within limits, that means the program can detect a faulty accent or slower-than-normal rate of speech. Audio cues let you know whether you got it right.
TriplePlayPlus! is built around a series of games and comic strips with dialogue, broken out by level of difficulty and segregated by subject (food, numbers, etc.). Students can choose aural- comprehension games that demonstrate how the language should sound, games that teach you to read, and contests that use speech recognition to get you to use your voice. In one entry-level game, Concentration, pupils are shown pictures of items arranged in a grid. After studying the location of the items and practicing vocabulary, the items are covered up and students are asked in the foreign language to find them again from memory.
TICKING CLOCK. Those who want to immerse themselves fully in a language--with no English--can try the $139 Berlitz Think & Talk programs from HyperGlot Software in French, German, Italian, and Spanish. The series combines a CD-ROM disk with up to nine audio compact disks. Think & Talk offers 50 simple five- to seven-minute scenes, using color illustrations with dialogue and sound effects such as a ticking clock.
Berlitz also collaborated on the Berlitz Live! series in Spanish and Japanese from Sierra On-Line, handsome programs aimed at familiarizing travelers with foreign customs and language. The Spanish version is punctuated with delightful music and contains animated sequences with dialogue. You can repeat the scenes and take over the dialogue for a character. A main menu leads to a dozen sections on such areas as grammar, hotels, and shopping. One nuisance: the trivial factoids that popped up on the screen each time I clicked to move elsewhere ("American hot dogs and hamburgers are increasingly popular in Mexico").
The Learn To Speak French and Learn To Speak Spanish programs from Learning Company and HyperGlot are also well-suited for travelers. The French version begins with tiny videos of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and other sites, and is divided into 30 chapters on subjects such as taking a train. The "at the butcher shop" chapter begins with a video of the boucherie, takes you to a vocabulary page where you can click on terms to get definitions, then tests you in a word drill. So perhaps there's hope for my French after all, n'est-ce pas? Edward Baig