Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 162 / MARCH 1994 / PAGE 98

Electronic Esperanto. (foreign language software)
by Anthony Moses

While there are a few intolerably smug people who can easily soak up a new language, the rest of us have to work at it. Ever since the curse of Babel, people have been trying to find a painless way to acquire a second language, through techniques ranging from hypnosis to sleep-learning to the use of magic rings. It's no wonder that the personal computer has been pressed into service as a language tutor. The past several years have seen the appearance of a number of programs that purport to help you learn a foreign language; many of the newer programs take advantage of CD-ROM technology to provide digitized video and recordings of native speakers to help your pronunciation. But upgrading their systems isn't a move that many users are prepared (or able) to make yet, and while some CD-ROM programs are also available in disk format, they may take up to 40MB on your hard drive. So the big question is whether there's anything out there that can help you get bilingual without making a big hardware investment or further taxing on already overtaxed hard disk.

The good news first: Yes, there is. While it's not likely that any computer-based instrution can ever replace clasroom or real-world experience in learning a second language, the programs covered here can be of some help to people who wish to practice above and beyond the call of the curriculum. Even better, the largest of these requires no more than 15MB of drive space, and most require much less. The programs reflect differnt philosophies of language learning, which may be a good thing. People do, after all, have different ways of learning a subject and different reasons for wanting to know a new language. The bad news is that no matter which of these programs you choose, you're still going to have to use your brain.

A common way to begin learning a language is to memorize basic words and phrases so you can get by in a foreign-language environment. The EZ Language series from Future Trends Software is a good place to start. EZ Language is the PC version of the traveler's vest-pocket phrase book. There is no attempt to instruct the user in grammar. EZ Language simply tells you what to say to get what you want, and it's perhaps less concerned with comprehension than with results--probably the main concern of most tourists. Once past the title screen, you enter the colorful Main menu, which consists of eight subject areas (Basic Phrases, Arrival, Eating Out, Shopping, and so on). Clicking on any of these areas will give you a series of phrases and illustrated vocabulary words; click on any of these, and you'll hear a native speaker of the language say the word or phrase (EZ Language can use the PC speaker if you don't have a sound card, though you'll have to load a driver for it). If you have a microphone to plug into your sound card, you can record and play back your own voice to check on your pronunciation. Once you have gone through the whole lesson, you'll be tested. Correct answers get a gong of acknowledgement; wrong answers get a bizarre cuckoo whistle.

EZ Language is fun to play with; interspersed with the lessons are fun facts about the country and digitized photographs of scenery. It can be instructional on a very basic level, though you have to wonder who its intended audience is. As a phrase book, it's bulkier (and less comprehensive) than the old vest-pocket editions, and not many tourists carry their laptops everywhere they go on vacation. The tests are also occasionally so transparent that they're no real gauge of ability. If the test sentence is Le ______est cass and only one of the four English choices has a blank in it, can you guess which is correct? Users who are looking for a basic tourist-survival vocabulary will find EZ Language useful, and children just beginning in a foreign language will find it a lot of fun. But while the technique of beginning in a language by memorizing vocabulary and expressions is certainly valid, older and more serious language students will want to look for something a bit more substantial.

Torture for the Advanced

A more substantial program for building a store of words and phrases is the Word Torture series from HyperGlot (available in Spanish, German, French, and Italian). Word Torture is a high-tech take on an old language class standby, the flashcard drill. Word Torture's Preference Page lets you set up the conditions for your drill: You can choose from three vocabulary lists and decide how many words to include in the session, the order in which the words will appear (random or alphabetical), the length of the pause between words, and whether to use the flashcard or test mode. Once you're set up back at the Work Page, Word Torture will flash a word in either the original or the target language. If you're in flashcard mode, the translation will pop up in the Correct Answer window; if you're in test mode, type the answer in another window and wait for the verdict. Word Torture keeps a tab on your performance and tells you your score.

Working on the flashcard model, but taking it a step further, is the VocabuLearn/ce series from Penton Overseas. It's available in a number of languages, in both DOS and Windows formats. Beginners will probably opt for the default setup, which represents a series of English words and phrases whose foreign-language counterparts are hidden until you click them onto the screen. You may work at your own pace or click on the Scan option, which flashes the cards at you at an adjustable rate. What VocabuLearn/ce offers over Word Torture is sound. If you stick with the default word order in VocabuLearn/ce, you can use the two 90-minute cassettes that come in the package. As you click from word to word, you can listen to native speakers pronouncing the words on the flashcards. Once the drill becomes too comfortable, you can go into the Options menu and liven things up a little by randomizing the order of the flashcards, changing the automatic Scan rate, or choosing to type in the correct answers. You can enable the Hint function, which supplies clues like those on "Wheel of Fortune."

Tense About Learning

English speakers trying to learn a foreign language probably have more trouble with verb tenses than with any other aspect of grammar. Consequently, one of the first tasks of a new language learner is to memorize verb conjugation tables. Tense Tutor, available from HyperGlot (in Spanish, German, Italian, and French), drills you in your understanding and listening comprehension of verb tenses. To begin, you're given a list of tenses in the language; click on any of these tenses, and you'll be switched to the testing screen. Click on the Test Me button, and a digitized voice will speak a sentence in the language you're studying. You then respond by typing in the tense form you think you've heard. If you'd like a hint or two before you commit yourself to an answer, Tense Tutor will oblige. You can ask for an English translation of the sentence or call up a conjugation chart of the verb forms of the tense you have selected; the Comments button provides miscellaneous information about tense usage in the sentence you're working on, while Tense Help lets you review the basics of tense formation. If, despite all this help, your answer is still wrong, Tense Tutor will keep retesting you on all the tense forms you've missed until you get them all right--or until you choose to abandon retesting and move on to another tense.

One important key to being understood--and avoiding hoots of derisive laughter--when speaking a foreign language is pronunciation, and the only way to perfect pronunciation is continual practice. This usually means spending hours listening to tapes in a language lab. HyperGlot's Pronunciation Tutor (available in Spanish and French for PC users) is useful for dedicated students who want an extra bit of practice at home. Pronunciation Tutor provides a list of click-on buttons dealing with such topics as basic vowel and consonant sounds in the language, stress and accent, combining words in phrases and sentences, and the like. Click on the pronunciation area you want to practice in, and the drill window will display a list of words, phrases, or sentences; click on any of these, and the digitized voice of a native speaker will pronounce them, singly or all at once. Pronunciation Tutor won't be all you'll need to achieve a native speaker's accent, but if you can master the pronunciation of the words in the program, you'll have made a good start toward speaking the language in a way that won't embarrass you.

Transparent Tutor

Drills such as the one we've covered are good for pumping up your vocabulary and brushing up your grammar knowledge. But the real test of language ability is how well you can use it in conversation, reading, and writing.

If you remember learning to read with an adult standing at your shoulder and helping you with the hard parts, you've got the idea behind Transparent Language, a foreign-language reading program whose philosophy is that you learn to read not by memorizing grammar or vocabulary lists, but by actually reading. In Transparent Language, the window in the top half of the screen contains the foreign-language text. As you tab (or click) the highlight from word to word, the five help windows at the bottom of the screen provide translations of words, phrases, and clauses, as well as further information such as etymology, case, and part of speech. The texts you'll be reading in Transparent Language won't be the simplified-vocabulary drudgery of most beginning language courses, either. You start off with the big guys: Ovid, Hoffman, Cervantes, and their peers. The idea is to start you off reading immediately, however, badly, with the safety net of instantly available translation and commentary if you want it (and if you don't, the translation windows can be hidden).

Mindful, however, that many language students thrive on word lists and drills, Transparent Language's version 2.0 has added such features as the ability to create vocabulary lists as you read and then to print these out along with the complete foreign-language text. The program also includes Voabulus, a game that drills you on spelling skills. The Transparent Language core program offers sample texts in German, French, Latin, and Spanish, but you can purchase other works on disk from its catalog.

Hiring a Translator

For many people, the ideal foreign-language program would be one that obviated the need to actually learn the language and, instead, simply did the translation work for them. While we're still a long way from that, there are a couple of programs for the PC that come close. The Language Assistant series from MicroTac Software (available in Spanish, French, German, and Italian) and Power Translator 2.0 from Globalink are both the sort of thing you probably daydreamed about in you high-school language classes. Both are capable of translating from English to a foreign language and vice versa. Neither is really a language-teaching program; both are designed for people whose business involves frequent foreign-language contact, and both assume that the user has a fairly idiomatic command of the target language. Although beginners in a language should stay far away from both of these programs, more advanced students may find them to be of help in developing more effective writing skills.

Both Power Translator and Language Assistant provide rapid, approximate translations from one language to another. Not being human, neither of the programs is especially sensitive to connotation or context; they choose the most common translation for a word, whether or not it's appropriate for the context in which it appears. Both are also somewhat cofused by complex sentences, so the user's manual of each application advises you to deal chiefly in simple sentences. Once the programs have produced a rough translation, you're expected to revise the translation to make it more natural and idiomatic.

Of the two, Power Translator seems to produce the smoothest and most idiomatic initial translation--no doubt due in part to its impressive bilingual vocabulary (250,000 words and phrases). It can translate text files either sentence by sentence or all at once. But probably its most attractive feature is its ability to tranlate instantenously. Simply type the word or sentence in the original language window at the top of the screen, and in a matter of seconds, you'll have a fairly approximate translation in the bottom window. If a word cannot be translated because it's not in the dictionary or if it cannot be properly inflected in the sentence as written, it's flagged in the translation. During the editing process, you can change the offending word in the original and retranslate, or you can go into the dictionary later to add the definition or revise existing definitions to meet your specifications.

Language Assistant lacks Power Translator's ability to instantly translate typed-in text; it works solely from imported text files or files created on its own internal text editor. If what you're really after is practice in learning to write a language, Language Assistant may be more useful than Power Translator. It provides a lot more online help for the writer. Whereas Power Translator presents its translation as a fait accompli and gives little online assistane in editing the translation, Language Assistant provides a dictionary window. As you tab the highlight from word to word in the translation window, the dictionary window displays alternate translations for the word in the original. And while Power Translator suggests that your translation is best edited in your word processor, Language Assistant's internal text editor lets you access both the bilingual dictionary and the verb conjugator to help in fine-tuning your translation. You can also make both the dictionary and the conjugator memory-resident so as to access them in most DOS word processors. The upshot of this is that while Power Translator will produce smoother, less patchy initiail translations of a text, Language Assistant will actually come closer to teaching you how to think and write in a foreign language by leaving a lot of the vocabulary and connotative choices up to you and giving you the help you need to make those choices.

Making precisely those choices is the heart of language use, and the best of the foreign-language programs recognize that. language use is, after all, a dynamic human enterprise--not something that a machine can do for you. As I warned you, you're still going to have to use your brain.