Speaking in tongues

20th October 1995 at 01:00
Language teaching benefits from the sound and vision of CD-Rom. Philip Hood looks at some of the discs on offer.

Multimedia CD-Rom technology has a great deal to offer foreign language learning. From younger children, national curriculum, advanced foreign language learners in schools and colleges, to adults studying at home, the combination of visual and audio with instant retrieval must be a language learner's Utopia. But does the software match this potential?

Since we cannot expect any Government action over a national early start to foreign language learning, a sensitisation process is important for younger children so they become aware of other languages and feel positively about learning them. Such CD-Roms as Syracuse Language Systems' I Speak French (or German) offer opportunities to hear words for colours, numbers, weather and other everyday topics via simple but colourful games.

English CD-Roms which include material in another language may also stimulate interest. Titles coming out next year in the Talking Books series by Br?derbund tell the story in French and German, as well as English (there are other series too).

Having become acquainted with the material in English, children often enjoy being able to guess the meanings of words. This has the advantage of real, connected text in another language, read aloud and illustrated with pictures.

However there is still a need for interactive computer-based materials for foreign languages which address the learning process itself. For self-study by adults on an individual basis and for extension and reinforcement of a taught programme, it is important that CD-Roms reflect current modern languages methodology by including presentation, practice and production. As a minimum they should feature: 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; the chance to create one's own versions of dialogues; and a testing format which would allow all skills to be evaluated and a record of progress to be kept.

Most titles now emerging let the learner to use a combination of visual, textual and audio stimuli to match, repeat, practise and record the words, phrases and dialogue. The sound quality of voices is usually good, with native speakers who have been chosen as good models and for their clarity of speech. These programmes may involve basic vocabulary work: The Learning Company's French Vocabulary Builder, for example, offers key words in a variety of topic areas, styles and formats for hearing, repeating and matching them.

Interactive Learning Productions' Directions 2000 and Fairfield Language Technologies' The Rosetta Stone have more interesting features but also contain drawbacks. The Rosetta Stone uses the same visual images whatever the language and can seem repetitive as the format is based on matching words and dialogues to pictures throughout. The language is developed beyond simple phrases and is useful for reading and listening practice, but there is random complexity in some of the material which a learner might find confusing.

Directions 2000 functioned very slowly on a 486 machine, but offers a more varied programme of vocabulary-building. There are opportunities to learn single vocabulary items and phrases and in some contexts to hear longer passages of French with a visual commentary. There is also an adventure game, a separate disc which allows sound, text and visuals from the CD-Rom to be captured, edited and printed, and a manual with some worksheet materials.

Two other recent CD-Rom series have concentrated on providing topic-based language-building. Mindscape has produced interactive language tutorial programmes on CD-Rom in four major European languages and Vektor has much improved on the format of the entry level Basic Expressions (which featured French, German and Spanish) at the next level. Both provide a good variety of material and tasks.

In the Global programmes the learner has a choice between two major strands: Skills and Themes (along with Profile and Help modes). The Skills programme allows you to work outside a topic on options such as Vocabulary (nouns and adjectives), Verbs, Phrases and Sentences and it has a Grammar Rules reference section.

The Themes mode looks at language items through 10 different "survival" themes. The first entry to a theme is through a bank of vocabulary items which appear in picture, English and foreign language format. Users can then move into phrases and sentences within the general theme area. There is also an element called "In FranceGermanyItalySpain" which allows dialogues to be heard, repeated and adapted, again within the general topic area.

Additional features include a fixed dictionary of about 1,000 words and an option to create your own working dictionary as you progress. The Profile option keeps a record of your test results based on reading and writing, with some listening comprehension. Speaking skills are self-monitored through the recordplayback option.

The Basic Expressions programme is less ambitious, limiting itself to nine familiar topic areas. Its strength is that it has attempted to structure activities and interactions into a learning cycle. The handbook gives guidance on how to use the presentation features, structure simple and more complex practice and extend oneself by using language. It doesn't offer the variety of Global or even Directions 2000, but it is probably more thorough in its teaching process.

Both the Global and Expressions programmes are a move in the right direction. Global would require a more developed language awareness because it offers less guidance. Neither has a structure which moves progressively from lesson to lesson, as does The Rosetta Stone, but so far those CD-Roms which attempt this approach are rather dull. As an adjunct to a taught programme, they provide useful consolidation opportunities. As a fully independent "teach- yourself" programme, there is still something missing.

Multimedia machines are not common in school language departments but further programme development could provide more incentives to buy and use them at least in information technology suites or school libraries.

Philip Hood teaches at the School of Education, University of Nottingham

* Languages For Leisure Tutorial Programmes:Global French, Global German, Global Italian, Global Spanish, Pounds 29.99 for beginner, intermediate and advanced programs or Pounds 59.99 for all three. From Mindscape, Priority House, Charles Avenue, Maltings Park, Burgess Hill, West Sussex RH15 9PQ. Tel: 0144 239600.

* Vektor:Expressions, Pounds 69 plus VAT, from Vektor, The Oaks, Preston Road, Chorley PR7 1PL.Tel: 01257 232222.

* Interactive Learning Productions: Directions 2000 (French), Pounds 99. 99 plus VAT, from Yorkshire International Thomson Multimedia, TV Centre, Leeds LS3 1JS. Tel: 0113 246 1328.

* Syracuse Language Systems:Multimedia Language System I speak French (4yrs upwards; 9 to adult; and Germanalso available).Tel:00 33 72 65 50 00 * Fairfield Language Technologies:The Rosetta Stone (available in French, German, Spanish, Russian and American English), Pounds 99 plus VAT for the Powerpac aimed at families with young children, Pounds 299 per language for more advanced pack which takes students from beginners to university level. From Prestige Network, Universal House, 9 Eddington Road, Bracknell RG12 8GF. Tel: 01344 303800. Fax: 01344 303801.

* The Learning Company:French Vocabulary Builder, US$45, from Hyperglot, 6493 Kaiser Drive, Fremont CA 94555, USA. Fax 001615 588 6569.

* Br?derbund:Living Books (multi-language stories include Arthur's Birthday and Harryand the Haunted House), Pounds 35 pluspp. From Br?derbund Software, PO Box 63, Hartlepool, Cleveland TS25 2YP. Tel 01429 273029.

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