A Software Path to Learning Languages

SO you don't speak French like a diplomat. Your German is nonexistent. The high-school textbook promised "Spanish Without Tears." But you cried anyway.

Now, you're hankering to speak a foreign language again. Your home computer can help. A new generation of foreign-language software is emerging. It is flexible and highly interactive. If you're motivated to learn, computers can help. The move to incorporate them into foreign-language teaching is part of a larger move to bring technology into the classroom.

All this comes to mind because I've been playing with a computer program called "Transparent Language." It comes from a Hollis, N.H., company of the same name. Its premise is simple. If you want to learn a foreign language, read as much of it as you can.

The software works this way: Users read texts on the screen. When they come to an unfamiliar word, they can look down at a window that translates the word - or another window that translates the complete phrase. The texts are real literature, ranging from Guy de Maupassant's "La parure" ("The Necklace") to an excerpt from Cervantes' "Don Quixote."

After trying a German selection, I came to some conclusions: The translations are very good; it would be hard to learn grammar using this program alone; computers won't threaten a professor's job anytime soon; students can learn a lot by working through a German text (even if, like me, they know only four words of German).

The program has a traditional text-based interface. Transparent Language offers a separate cassette to hear the German text spoken aloud (an added $6 to $20 to the cost of each title, which usually runs about $20).

The new trend in foreign-language software is to integrate text and voice on the computer, throw in some graphics and maybe even some video. (The buzzword for this is "multimedia.")

One of the best multimedia experiments I've seen comes from James Noblitt, a fellow at the Institute for Academic Technology at the University of North Carolina. His program shows real-life situations.

In one example, you see and hear French children buying pastries in a pastry shop. Then the computer asks questions. Then it gives the answers by reshowing a brief portion of the video. Text can be displayed with the video; words can be looked up. Professor Noblitt says he teaches students to listen with their eyes as well as their ears (much as we do when talking face-to-face).

We can expect many more such programs in the next few years. Some will offer sight and sound. Others, like Transparent Language, will offer other approaches. That's the point. In educational software, one size does not fit all. Students may be in the best position to know what size fits them.

That's what Denis Ferland found when he tested his software at Principia College in Elsah, Ill. The idea behind his "Speak to the World" program is to give students maximum flexibility. They can do everything from word matching to a video game to recording their voice and comparing it to a native speaker. They can let the computer do all the work and just watch passively. They can turn off the English translation and sound prompts and challenge themselves.

"The student learns at his own pace, which is quite different from: `I'm going to program your kid,' " says Mr. Ferland, founder of Spoken Language Instruction Corporation in St. Louis.

It is also quite different from replacing teachers with computers.

On any given day at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., 3,000 students are taking foreign-language courses. The institute is in the midst of a big push to create a huge volume of computer-assisted programs in 13 languages. Already, students spend about one hour a day on the computer and six in the classroom. The new computer programs won't change that ratio much, but they will improve the teaching.

"We don't believe a computer replaces a teacher," says Col. Donald Fischer, commandant of the institute. "It allows us to compress more work and time on task in the same amount of time." Freed from drill-and-practice, teachers can make the classroom the ultimate avenue for interactive learning.

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