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Words that roll off the tongue;Modern languages

Self-conscious about your foreign pronunciation? Eleanor Caldwell looks at voice-recognition software that overcomes the worst inhibitions.

outing the lips, rolling the Rs and forming smooth liaisons: the language teacher's challenge is to persuade learners to listen hard, change the shape of their mouths and imitate. So when inhibitions prevent conversation, what is the solution? Talk to a machine, of course. Voice-recognition software focuses listening, offers practice and encourages self assessment for self-conscious language learners.

Following the already successful Talk to Me CD-Rom from the French company Auralog, the new Tell Me More CD-Rom moves on from a basic dialogue and pronunciation format to include video with comprehension questions, extensive grammar and glossary functions, and a variety of written exercises. However, the two packages' key functions are the same: the student takes part in a dialogue, responds to questions and conversational development is dependent on the answers.

In comprehension mode, the computer only continues when the correct response is given. For the aural purists, there is one complication: in addition to hearing the question, the student sees it written with a choice of three answers, so a level of text scanning is needed before an appropriate answer can be given. The answer can be played to offer an aural model, but the initial scan reading process could daunt the less able.

A translation option might be disliked by purists, but would be welcomed by students who want to understand and not just imitate.

Depending on the level chosen, the student's reply will be accepted and highlighted on the screen within three seconds. Fluent movement through the dialogue is challenging. However, set at a realistic level, the focused process of uninterrupted listening and responding develops confidence.

Natural progression from the interactive dialogues is provided by pronunciation exercises. This is where the voice recognition system really comes into its own. With a selected sentence and acceptance level, the crux of rolling rs and forming liaisons is scrutinised and perfected.

This is compulsive. Self analysis is the order of the day: with not only a score of between one and seven, but also a very discerning visual voice graph takes over the role of intrusive teacher.

With this visual representation of pronunciation, it's easy to see exactly where a student's problems lie. The voice graph appears below the written sentence and a graph of a model voice. A student can gain instant gratification if his or her graph appears in the matching blue of the model, indicating a score above or at least equal to the acceptance level. The shape looks the same too. If there is an obvious mistake on a word or phrase, a click on the computer mouse allows the section to be perfected in isolation.

For the relatively accomplished linguist attempting Level 7 in their second language, the challenge to match that graph is an increasingly compulsive challenge. For the 11-year-old embarking on a foreign language for the first time, making the graph turn unacceptable purple to matching blue is also all important.

Moving on from dialogue-based comprehension and pronunciation, Tell Me More also offers interesting spoken grammar exercises. The organisation of word order, for example, is imperative in an exercise where a jumbled sentence appears on-screen to be reordered into the spoken version.

A picture-word association exercise is arguably made unfairly difficult when on offering a picture of butter and three options, the word "beurre" is rejected and only the strictly-correct "du beurre" is correct. This is pedantic and may not even be a problem at a different level.

Written exercises such as crosswords and the use of technology is a bright approach that appeals to a surprisingly wide range of students. After recent reports of pupils' antipathy towards language learning, this could be the answer. Perhaps after good marks and matching voice graphs, perfect Rs will roll off the tongue.

Talk to Me (pound;34.95) and Tell Me More (pound;44.99), both for PC, come with headset and microphone.

Eleanor Caldwell is a freelance writer and languages specialist. She has taught languages in England and Scotland


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