And It Won't Criticize Your Accent

A personal computer teaching you to parler francais or hablar espanol? It's possible, within limits, thanks to software available for IBM-compatible PCs and Apple Macs. They're designed to help students learn French, Spanish, German, Italian, or Japanese with greater efficiency than traditional solo methods based on books and cassettes or records.

Don't think these programs will let you avoid the hard work that's required to speak or write in another language. They rely on rote methods: lots of drills in grammar, vocabulary, and conversational skills. But by responding to you instantly, by recorded voice or visually, they may hold your attention better than a book or a tape.

Probably the most sophisticated courses on the market are from HyperGlot Software in Knoxville, Tenn. Its Berlitz Think & Talk series, for beginners, is in French, Spanish, Italian, and German, with Japanese soon to come. Employing Berlitz's total-immersion method, the programs use only the language they're teaching--no English. They effectively turn your PC into a filmstrip projector, displaying sequences of color illustrations that tell simple stories. Visual hints and a liberal use of cognates help you figure out what to say in response to dialogues played from as many as nine compact disks.

GRAMMAR DRILLS. HyperGlot's Learn to Speak series adheres to a more traditional philosophy: Mastering grammar is the most important step in learning the language as a whole. To that end, Learn to Speak offers explanatory notes in grammar and usage, mostly in English, along with more than 100 grammar drills. The programs respond instantly when you type a wrong answer.

Both HyperGlot language courses require a CD-ROM drive for your computer--a $300 to $500 investment--which lets the program select and play recorded segments. If you're running the programs on a newer Macintosh that comes with a microphone, you'll be able to record your responses on the Mac and compare them with the program's sound clips. For older machines, you'll need to add a $100 sound board

For those who want extra practice in certain skills, there's a wide range of software available. Penton Overseas in Carlsbad, Calif., offers the VocabuLearn series. Available in three levels of difficulty, they run you through flash-card-like drills. Each level covers some 1,500 words and phrases, displaying them one by one in either English or a foreign language--your choice. You can randomize the word order, adjust the time you're given to type in the right translation, and skip words you no longer need to practice.

Penton also produces graphical software for the Mac called Picture It! These $69.95 programs can display more than 500 drawings accompanied by a recording of the corresponding word.

QUICK TRANSLATION. HyperGlot, meanwhile, offers Pronunciation Tutor, Tense Tutor, and Word Torture. The latter, at $60, can drill you in 1,600 or more vocabulary words. You can add your own words, too. HyperGlot's Reading Lab series helps you through foreign short stories. Click on a puzzling word in Guy de Maupassant's The Necklace, for example, and the program translates. When finished, test your comprehension with a series of true/false questions.

The PC can be put to work as a translator, too, but only in a limited way. MicroTac Software's Spanish, French, German, and Italian Assistants translate your sentences to or from English. But don't expect polished prose: Most translation programs are designed to handle business documents containing few idiomatic phrases.

If you don't have time for regular language lessons, a computer tutor may be your next-best choice. Ultimately, it's the most patient--albeit mindless--drillmaster you could ask for.

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