Leg up on languages
?Habla espanol? No? Neither do I, but I've always envied my bilingual friends' ability to converse in more than one language. So it was more than idle curiosity that prompted me to take a close look at Atari's Conversational Spanish program. Perhaps Atari and I could do in several weeks what my high school teachers couldn't do in four years - make me bilingual.
The Conversational Spanish program is one of four programs in Atari's Conversational Language series. The others are Conversational French, Italian, and German. Each set comes with five cassette tapes and a coursebook, and sells for $59.95. The series was created and developed by EMI Audio Visual Services Ltd. and the Longman Group Publishing Co. Unlike Atari's previous venture into computerized education, the "Talk and Teach" series, the Conversational language programs require only the Atari BASIC cartridge.
The course is designed as a first step for anyone fourteen years old or older who wants to begin to study Spanish. By the time you complete the course's ten units, you will be ready to learn to speak, read, write, and understand Spanish.
The course is divided into ten units: About you; Yourself and others; Please; Finding the way; Where; When; Describe it; I like; I want; and Actions. Each of the cassettes contains two units (one on each side). The coursebook is divided into the same ten units and also contains a two-page summary of grammatical rules, a list of selected vocabulary words, and a suggested study routine. Two or three "learning phases" make up each unit.
Although the tapes can be used independently from the coursebook, the book is designed to be used as each section of the program is completed. Each unit in the book is divided into three sections. The Study section reviews the vocabulary taught in that unit and introduces appropriate grammatical rules. The Practice section consists of written exercises that test your knowledge of the material. These exercises can include fill-ins, matching problems, the forming of sentences, and other similar work. The Activities section includes exercises in reading and writing, such as answering questions about a map, ordering food from a menu, or writing a letter to a friend.
The computer portion of the course is also presented in several different ways. Sometimes you look, listen, and repeat. Other times, you read and type in a response to a question. After you type in your answer, the computer immeditely lets you know if you are correct. If you are wrong, you get another chance.
Trying to learn a foreign language from a computer, however, can be like trying to learn about music from a book. You may end up knowing a lot about the mechanics of chords, but you'll never fully appreciate the beauty ofthe sounds those chords can make. Using a computer to become familiar with a foreign language can lead to similar frustrations. You may become expert at spelling and at conjugating irregular verbs, but without hearing the words spoken corrrectly you will not be able to learn to speak the language intelligibly.
However, Atari's ability to mix a voice track with a computer program, using the 410 Recorder, alleviates some of problems. Atari's Conversational Spanish program shows you a written sentence, lets you hear a human (not synthesized!) voice reading that sentence, all then gives you ample time to repeat it. Sometimes you are asked to listen to a conversation between two people and then to answer questions about the conversation. At other times, you are asked to match parts of fragmented sentences shown on the screen.
Because I know almost no Spanish, I was able to look at this program from the viewpoints of both an educator and a student. I found that the course's multiple approach to each lesson virtually ensures that you will learn something about the Spanish language. However, I have several major complaints about the program.
First of all, the speakers on the tape tended to speak too quickly for a beginner to follow. According to the Spanish speaking teachers who listened to parts of the tapes with me, their pronunciation was very good. However, I could always detect subtle nuances, such as "g" in "gusto."
Secondly, there is the question of correct as opposed to common usage. The coursebook states that either "Usted es" or "Es usted" can be used to mean "Are you?" as in "Are you Carmen Lopez!" However, "Es usted" is the preferred form.
I also found the pacing of the program to be painfully slow at times. For example, I spent almost thirty minutes learning to say "Are you Carmen Lopez from Mexico City!" But the biggest obstacle to using the program effectively was the review feature. The program periodically asks you whether you want to continue with thel next lesson or review the lesson you have just finished. But because the program cannot rewind the tape, the review must be done without the voice track, unless you are willing to start again at the beginning of the tape.
In addition, the synchronization of the cassettes and the computer makes it very difficult to stop the program and spend extra time on a sentence or concept that you find particularly troublesome. And a poorly-timed pressing of the [BREAK] key can throw the synchronization completely off, and make it necessary to start from the beginning of the tape.
Finally, I would like to have seen more extensive coverage of grammatical structures within each unit of the course-book. Instead, I had to turn to the back of the book constantly to find the specific rules of grammar that applied to the units I was studying.
As stated in the introduction to the coursebook, the goal of this program is to motivate you to learn the language. You will certainly learn enough Spanish to fumble your way through most everyday experiences, which isn't such a bad idea. After all, most people who visit the United States make an effort to gain at least a rudimentary knowledge of English. Conversational Spanish did not make me truly bilingual, but it did give me an introduction to and an appreciation for another language. That's a good first step.