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Formats for finding fluency

Philip Hood welcomes new multimedia programs which address the learning process as well as language skills.


Global French, Global German, Global Italian, Global Spanish Language learning software for Research Machines and IBM and compatible multimedia PCs. One multimedia PC CD-Rom for each language, containing all ability levels Pounds 59.99 each. Floppy-disc versions for each level: beginners, intermediate and advanced Pounds 29.99 per level Mindscape, Priority House, Charles Avenue, Maltings Park, Burgess Hill, West Sussex RH15 9TQ

There is still a need for interactive computer-based materials for foreign language learning which address the learning process itself by including, in some format, presentation, practice and production modes. It is important that current modern languages methodology is reflected in such materials, whether they are intended for self-study by adults on an individual basis or for extension and reinforcement as self-access alongside a taught programme.

The minimum facilities needed to substitute effectively for a live teacher or to enhance the learning process meaningfully are: a progressive introduction of vocabulary, phrases and sentences in thematic topic areas; the presentation and practice of grammatical rules in context; the facility for repetition and more open interactivity, leading to a potential to allow the creation of "own" language; and a testing format which would allow all four skills to be evaluated and a record of progress to be kept.

Mindscape has published interactive language tutorial programs on CD-Rom or floppy disc format in four major European languages. These programs, created by SIR (Systems Integrated Research) reach good levels as regards variety of material and task and go some way towards addressing interactivity through a range of facilities. The CD-Rom versions reviewed here include some features which the floppy disc format does not offer.

Installation was straightforward, although there may be problems with sound if specifications do not match - background music is provided by MIDI files which my machine could not provide, but the voice was clear and of good quality.

The main menu offers the learner the choice between the two main strands, Skills and Themes as well as Profile and Help modes. The Skills program allows you to work without a topic context on options such as Vocabulary (nouns and adjectives), Verbs, Phrases and Sentences and it also offers a Grammar Rules reference section.

The Themes mode looks at language items through the context of 10 different "survival" themes. Three levels are available (beginner, intermediate and advanced) with some themes available at all three levels in differing mini-topics. In all modes there is a user-friendly menu bar at the bottom of the screen which allows all features to be implemented easily.

The first entry to a theme area is through a bank of 20 or 40 vocabulary items which appear in picture, English and foreign language format with the facility to move easily from one to the other, to hear the words spoken and to be tested by hearing the word and selecting the correct translation. It is also possible to move into phrases and sentences within the general theme area, to use the Skills format but with a context. An element called "In FranceGermanyItalySpain" allows dialogues to be heard, repeated and adapted, again within the general topic area.

Using a microphone, it is possible to interact through all stages in "Parrot Mode", which allows language to be heard, repeated (and recorded) and then a playback for self-monitoring purposes. Similarly, the learner can participate in the dialogues in the "In Germany" etc sections through taking a role, varying the input, recording the material, and hearing playback.

Additional features include a fixed dictionary of about 1,000 words and an option to create your own working dictionary. With the Notepad you can practise language and make notes. The Profile option keeps a record in various formats of your test activity, and can show progress over time as raw scores, or highlight the last month's work.

The testing format is a strong feature having a variety of test forms, most of which are reading and writing-based, although some do test listening comprehension. Speaking skills are tested only as self-monitoring, through the record and playback facility.

The Global programs are a move in the right direction. As an independent, self-contained learning programme it would require you to have an established ability to organise your learning effectively and probably a reasonably developed language awareness - this is not a pre-set learning programme which moves from lesson to lesson and guides the learner through a "sensible" path to foreign language acquisition. As an adjunct to a taught programme it would provide useful practice opportunities for topic-based language or grammatical structures, and here the profile element would be invaluable for monitoring purposes.

There are just a few language form errors, which should be addressed, but the general relevance of language and ease of use is commendable.

Multimedia machines are still regrettably rare in school but program development along these lines could provide more incentives to buy and use them. The Global learning systems are certainly worth an inspection.

Philip Hood is lecturer in modern languages at Nottingham University School of Education

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