Software for Learning Foreign Languages

[BE AWARE THAT THIS WAS WRITTEN IN 1993; ITS RECOMMENDATIONS ARE LARGELY OBSOLETE, although I still think that Transparent Language is an excellent program.]

by Mark Riley

(Mark Riley teaches Latin at CSU Sacramento, Sacramento CA 95819. Internet: Contact him for up-to-date information.)

For the past decade foreign language teachers have been writing a variety of programs to help students learn Spanish, French, German, and other foreign languages. These programs have included flash-card drills, in which the student responds to a word on the screen; enhanced word processing or composition programs which include a foreign language dictionary and some grammar help (the most famous of these is the PC program for French called Systèm-D); and games like Spanish Hangman. Language lessons created with PLATO, an authoring system which runs on mainframes, have been available for 15 years-if you have a mainframe terminal. Recently, the possibilities for good, accessible CALL (computer assisted language learning) have been greatly enhanced by Hypercard and the Mac LC with its sound capability.

Teachers have different ideas of how computers might help students. Here's my wish list: the ideal program to teach Spanish, for example, would speak Spanish to the student to help build listening and understanding skills, listen to the student speaking Spanish and would prompt responses and correct the student's speech, supply reading materials to improve the student's vocabulary, and make the student write short pieces in the language to improve his grammar. (Reading, writing, speaking, and understanding are the four areas of language proficiency.) The bad news is that my ideal program does not yet exist, mainly because good speech recognition is a long way off: the machine cannot listen to the student speaking Spanish. The good news is that the other three parts of the program can now be done, at least partially. Here is a report on several available Mac programs and how they can be used in college language classes and for self-study.

In Spring 1992 CSU Sacramento opened a CALL lab with 25 Mac LC's wired through an AppleShare network to a Mac SI server. After investigating the commercially available foreign language software, we decided to buy the Hypercard stacks for French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, and Chinese from Hyperglot Software (Hyperglot Software, 505 Forest Hills, Knoxville, TN 37919). These stacks seemed the most complete and ambitious of the available choices. While the stacks do not accompany a particular textbook-a disadvantage-they are generic enough for beginning and intermediate students to practice common skills. The French, German, and Spanish stacks are large, 12-13 megs. each, and contain pronunciation and grammar practice modules, with sound included.

Figure 1 shows a screen dump from one drill of the German stack. The student sees a sentence with the verb omitted. If he clicks on "Hear Sentence", the Mac reads the complete sentence, including the missing verb, with excellent sound quality (in the German and Spanish stacks; the sound in the French stack is poor). If he is stuck, he can click in the "Conjugation" box to see a complete conjugation of the verb in whatever tense he is practicing. If he still can't figure it out, he can click on the "Answer" box for the correct answer. (The "Translation" box gives an English translation of the sentence; the "Tense Help" box tells how to form the tense being drilled, here the future.) As I tell my students, they should not look on this exercise as a test, but as another way of studying: there is nothing wrong with looking at the answer, provided that they then learn the verb in question. This drill practices reading and writing language skills with some listening possible.

Figure 2 shows another part of the German stack, minimal pairs: sets of words that sound almost, but not quite, the same, like Mary and Murry, or Bob and boob in English. If the student clicks on a line, the Mac reads the pair of words, and the student can repeat. Of course, the machine can't listen and correct the student's pronunciation, which is what we would really like. Nevertheless the student can repeat the exercise 100 times if he likes, and the machine will never tire, one advantage it has over an occasionally short-tempered human teacher.

Other parts of the German stack contain listening practice using dates and numbers (the machine reads a number, e.g. "dreihundert acht und sechzig" and the student types "386"), a section of useful phrases with appropriate sound effects just for laughs (after the phrase, "Herr Ober, ein Bier, bitte!" the student hears the sound of a stein being drained). In one drill, a simple animation shows how the lips and tongue are moved to make the German vowel sounds. The French stack is arranged much like the German. The Spanish has sections on the difficult points of Spanish grammar (por/para, éste/ese/aquel, the subjunctive, and more). Each section of the Spanish stack has a textbook-like series of cards explaining the topic, then a test section for each topic. The Spanish stack is very well done.

The Russian, Chinese, and Italian stacks are smaller and less ambitious (7, 4.5, and 4.8 megs in each respectively). The Chinese stack deals entirely with the tonal system-here the Mac LC's sound capabilities shine-and is appropriate for the beginning stage of learning to speak the language. Our Latin Hypercard stack came from another company, Centaur Systems (Centaur Systems, Ltd., 407 N. Brearly Street, Madison, WI 53703). This stack does not include sound but does have vocabulary exercises for the words in our textbook. As a result, the Latin stack is more directly applicable to the classes taught here than the Hyperglot stacks.

So far, we have used these programs as supplementary material. We encourage students to go to the CALL lab (in addition to the regular audio lab) for additional grammar practice. Of more importance to BMUG members, these stacks are a valuable resource for anyone learning or reviewing French, German, or Spanish on his own. If you want to learn a language on your own-well, forget about learning it entirely on your own. Begin your studies in some kind of class, perhaps at the local community college, night school, free university, or wherever, then continue practicing with audio tapes in your car (very useful if you already know a little), and with a book. Then, along with the tapes and books, get the Hyperglot stacks for extra practice. I know a German prof who is using the Hyperglot stacks to practice his French. Don't forget that language is a social activity; you should always try to use what you are learning with others who are also learning and with native speakers. Don't worry about mistakes-just keep talking.

Other programs for home study exist. One of the best was recently released: Transparent Language has been favorably reviewed in the Mac magazines, and I concur. Transparent Language (address) consists of an application (T.L. itself) and language specific modules for Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Latin. These modules are short stories or poems in the target language, with definitions for each word and translations for each phrase accessible with a mouse click. Audio tapes are available for each module, but in my opinion, the program is best suited for a person who wants to brush up his reading knowledge of a language. Several students in my classes have used the Catullus module to practice their Latin.

To return to the lab-we considered purchasing MacFlash Cards, vocabulary stacks for French, German, Spanish, Russian, Latin, and Czech (Language Quest, 101 First Street #428, Los Altos CA 94022) but decided to make our own flash cards with the authoring software mentioned below. We have also seen the Japanese kana and kanji practice software from Anonae Software, Box 7629, Berkeley, CA 94707, and MacDeutsch from Exceller Software, Cornell Research Park, 223 Langmuir Lab, Ithaca, NY 14850. A lot of home-made stacks circulate on university campuses-indeed, we are making some ourselves. We saw some nice stacks for Chinese made by an instructor at UC Davis, but none of this is readily available.

In addition to these prepackaged programs, CSUS bought authoring software, MacLang, developed by Judith Frommer at Harvard (from Intellimation, Box 219, Santa Barbara, CA 93116, 1-800-346-8355; Intellimation has some good educational programs-get their catalog). I know that there are elaborate and beautiful authoring packages out there (Authorware, Quest), but they are often too elaborate and beautiful for teachers trying to throw something together for class the next day. Hence MacLang: it is not beautiful; it crashes occasionally-in fact, more than occasionally-but it allows the teacher to make vocabulary, fill-in-the-blanks, and multiple-choice drills very easily. Even better, it is a small program, about 100K, and the drills are typically 10-20K; so the student can run the program from a floppy if he wants to take it home. Figure 3 shows one question from a Latin lesson drilling the 4th declension. The student types the answer; the program tells him if he got it right or wrong and simultaneously gives whatever help message I have programmed in. This is not hard to do. MacLang is not pretty, but it does the job easily and quickly. This program is not useful for home language study-unless you have someone to write lessons for you!

Good programs for language study now exist, and I expect more will come. A real breakthrough will be Hypercard + videodisc/CD-ROM programs in which sound and pictures or movies will be used together to duplicate as closely as possible travel in a foreign land. The student will be able to see, hear, and respond in a realistic setting. A few experimental Hypercard/videodiscs have been made, the best by Thomas Hiller and his colleagues at CSU Fresno, but these are not yet available to the public. I await them with anticipation.