Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 133 / SEPTEMBER 1991 / PAGE 92

Transparent Language. (language software) (evaluation)
by Anthony Moses

To paraphrase Mark Twain, everyone wants to know a foreign language, but nobody wants to learn one. When you consider how languages are usually taught, it's no wonder. Most of us encounter a second language in a high school class with lots of tedious rote memorization but few rewards. And all that many of us can do with that language in our postacademic days is to tell someone where the pen of our aunt is, as long as it's on the table. Years later, we may toy with the idea of going back and refreshing our knowledge of the language, but we've forgotten too much. Besides, with our schedules, it would be years before we'd ever be able to read anything worthwhile: Balzac, Cervantes, Virgil, Maupassant, Flaubert, Ovid--all closed books to us until we can do significantly more than successfully locate our aunt's Bic.

Transparent Language creator Michael Quinlan had a similar problem: How could he relearn the German he had lost years ago--and relearn it well enough to read what he wanted? And then, while he and his wife, Lynn, were teaching their four-year-old son to read, he had the chance to watch how a mind first learns a language. He concluded that perhaps the best way to acquire language skills is to accommodate the way the brain naturally works--not by memorizing an abstract grammatical system first, but by actually using the language in an environment that provides the support of specific knowledge whenever needed. Quinlan realized that the computer was uniquely empowered to be that environment. He began to design Transparent Language.

The philosophy of Transparent Language is that you can learn to read a language by actually reading something in that language--preferably, something enjoyable. One thing that makes learning to read a foreign language so difficult is that, for a long while, you probably won't be dealing with anything worth reading. The common instructional approach begins with a simple core vocabulary and grammar upon which you gradually build. The textbook reading samples reflect this, remaining at a cautious, low-vocabulary (and high-tedium) level. Few people can long bear reading denatured stories about where Marie or Gaius or Esteban place their writing implements. Worse, a graded reading sample can limit your progress by making no demands upon you. The normal linguistic environment of a child is rich and challenging; the child is aware that there's a lot of interesting stuff going on over his or her head and is motivated to learn the language in order to get the goodies. Quinlan's idea was, simply, to provide some goodies worth getting by immersing the reader in an interesting work as soon as possible and making reading it practicable.

On the surface, the Transparent Language program seems quite simple; the top half of the screen displays the text of an actual literary work in German, French, Latin, or Spanish, supported by five ancillary windows at the bottom. As you scroll through the text, moving the highlight from word to word (or, in the case of idiomatic constructions, phrase to phrase), the windows provide a literal equivalent for the highlighted item, a translation of each sentence or clause into idiomatic English, and additional commentary (such as tracing words to their roots or commenting upon their grammatical or syntactic functions). If you prefer to read the text without these helps, you can opaque the help windows; but if, while reading, you don't recognize a word, you can glance at the definition window. If a phrase or an entire sentence is incomprehensible, check the idiomatic translation--and then go on reading. Just as you'll improve your tennis game only if you keep playing tennis, no matter how badly at first, your reading comprehension will advance only if you stick to reading. The odds are that you'll remember the words the next time you encounter them because you're learning them in the context of natural language usage.

If this process somehow seems familiar, perhaps it's because this is how you learned to read in the first place. You got the information you needed as you needed it, from an experienced reader, without necessarily understanding its place in a comprehensive grammatical scheme. And while such a knowledge of grammar is, of course, useful, it's not essential. As any language instructor could tell you, a good writer or reader may have trouble dealing with grammar exercises, while a student who breezes through grammar drills may have no intuitive feel for the language--and in language, the feel is the important thing. Language uses is a right-brain activity; unfortunately, most language instruction comes in a left-brain format that, though easily memorized, cannot be as easily applied in concrete language-use situations. Quinlan intends Transparent Language to operate more on the right-brain model, supplying connotation (or felt meaning) as well as denotation (or dictionary meaning) for the words you read--and therefore making it more likely that you will incorporate the words into a living vocabulary.

This is Transparent Language's advantage over some other forms of computer-assisted language acquisition. While there are already a number of programs that purport to help you improve your foreign language skills, most of these, as Quinlan observes, "are still mired in the textbook model." They provide drills, such as multipl-choice or true-false exercises, or operate as foreign-language phrase books. While these certainly have their legitimate uses--fine-tuning your language skills or serving as stopgaps until you can actually learn the language, for example--they are of little help in developing a fluent linguistic ability. They also fail to take full advantage of the computer's power to consolidate and present a lot of information instantaneously, a weakness that Transparent Language seems to have overcome.

The Transparent Language starter set includes the master program and four sample stories in German, Spanish, Latin, and French, along with an audio cassette of the stories and an easy-to-read User's Guide. The accompanying catalog of other titles currently available from the Transparent Language company includes such worthies as short stories by Guy de Maupassant, "The Windmill Adventure" from Cervantes' Don Quixote, a portion of Hoffmann's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (the source for Tchaikovsky's popular ballet), excerpts from Ovid's Metamorphoses, and a number of other works you probably never imagined yourself reading in their original languages. The works are available in both 5 1/4- and 3 1/2-inch disks, as well as audio cassette versions to help you with hearing and pronouncing the language.

As a complement to the classroom, Transparent Language has a lot to offer in extending the student's reading skills and building his or her self-confidence. For self-motivated former foreign language students, Transparent Language is the best available alternative to digging out the grammar books and dictionaries. Don't fret over the locations of relatives' fountain pens; read a work of literature in a foreign tongue instead.