Vol. 1. No. 1 MR-1 April 1994
Return to Table of Contents Return to Main Page

Learn to Speak English for the Multimedia PC, Ver. 3.0

Romeiser, John, and Geoffrey C. Yerem (1993)
HyperGlot, The Foreign Language Software Company, Knoxville, Tenn.
CD-ROM (Macintosh version also available)
$99 sugg. list.

Tools, testers, tutors and toys: since the advent of CALL, these four categories have summed up the diversity of software available for language laboratory and individual use. The CD-ROM hasnt moved us beyond the four Ts, but it is bringing us bigger tools, testers, tutors and toys than ever before. The 600-mb. capacity of a single CD, coupled with multimedia hardware and a graphical interface like MS-Windows, is ushering in an era where sound, color and even full-motion video are available on the desktop, along with a volume and variety of text that itself is pretty amazing.

Anyone whos perused Computer Shopper lately, or dropped by the local software super-store, has seen how quickly CD-based software is taking over the ad pages and shelves. From news magazines to entire encyclopedias, from thousand-program shareware compilations to thousand-photo albums, from games about Disney characters to games about Doomsday, the compact disk is having a larger effect on computing than it ever did in the world of music.

In education, too, theres a lot to choose fromperhaps even too much, too suddenly, for many ESL teachers to keep up with. And, not surprisingly, a lot of whats out there is less good than it might be, and less than its packaging would claim. Anyone selecting compact disks for the language lab should be prepared to devote a fair amount of time to separating the dross from the gold, and to ensuring that the hardware being used is up to the demands of the software being considered.

For several years, HyperGlot has been the leading name in language-learning software. The Tennessee-based company, with sales of $2 million in 1992, has created computer tutorials for Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Russian and English. Until quite recently, HyperGlot developed software mainly for the Macintosh; now, the company is bringing its expertise to the IBM-compatible world as well, with its Berlitz Think and Talk series and its Learn to Speak titles.

Learn to Speak English for the Multimedia PC consists of thirty situational lessons on travel-related topics. The storyline revolves around a young man who has come to the U.S. to learn the terms of the will of his recently deceased aunt. Lesson titles include Immigration and Customs, Checking into a Hotel, Using the [-1-] Telephone, Meeting an Attorney, Renting an Apartment, At the Dentists Office, and Collecting Your Inheritance. Each lesson includes the following parts: the Setting, the Dialogue, Listening In, Closer Look, Exploring, Practice, a two-part Test, and a place where students can record their own voices and compare them to those of native English speakers. Buttons at the bottom of each lesson screen allow users to move easily from one task to another, as well as from one lesson to another.

Throughout, the Learn to Speak English menus and screens are intuitive, colorful, attractive and easy to use. This is due not only to HyperGlots wealth of experience with previous Mac-based programs, but also to the companys decision to build its Windows-compatible programs with the assistance of Asymetrix ToolBook, an authoring system that is remarkably similar to the Macs venerable HyperCard. (Would-be deconstructionists will no doubt be sorry to learn that HyperGlot has removed all scripts from behind its screens, probably as much to protect its techniques as to keep down the programs size.)

Learn to Speak English has many strengths, foremost being the extent and quality of its sound recordings. (In fact, 51 mb. of the 66 mb. recorded on the CD are .wav sound files.) Settings and Dialogues can be heard as complete selections or separated into sentence-sized chunks, and their text may be sent to a printer. Listening In provides a cloze exercise: while hearing the dialog again, learners can type in the missing words, and then check their answers. Closer Look provides the lessons new vocabulary in a scrolling fieldwords can be heard one at a time, or consecutively by means of a Hear All Words button. Each lessons Record screen is split in two: the left half, labeled Your Teachers Voice, shows the written dialog, which can be heard all at once or sentence by sentence; the right half, labeled Your Voice, shows names of sound files recorded by the learner during the session.

Some grammar and usage material is given in the Exploring and Practice screens, but the information in these screens is relatively sketchy, evidently meant to provide a general review rather than to teach new structures; the covered grammar ranges from irregular and plural forms of nouns in Lesson 1, to direct and indirect speech in Lesson 30. The two Test screens of each lesson are based on the Dialogues: in the first, learners are scored on a cloze version of the lessons Dialogue (with different blanks from those in Listening In); the second part of the Test asks learners to type a sentence that is appropriate to a communicative task, e.g., The Immigration agent asks to see your passport. He says: .

Although answers given on the Test screens are scored as correct or incorrect, Learn to Speak English does not keep scores on file for later review. This is in keeping with HyperGlots [-2-] decision, as stated in its Catalog, not to allow teachers to test or grade their students, or to capture their activities on disk. As the Catalog goes on to state, There are many other ways for us teachers to test, evaluate, judge, and grade our students. Thus we decided to leave the testing and evaluation to others and try to give our users a non-threatening and positive learning experience. Should they wish to do so, teachers can use the programs Install utility to modify acceptable answers in the Test section.

HyperGlot describes Learn to Speak English as suitable for learners from Beginner to Advanced levels. While something of an overstatement, this is not entirely untrue. As a situation-based lesson set, there is little evident progression in grammatical complexity or vocabulary level from one lesson to the next; there is, however, a discernible difference in difficulty between the Dialogues, which consist mainly of short sentences with fairly basic vocabulary, and the textual material found in the Settings and Notes sections. Moreover, the sheer size of CD-ROM based software, coupled with easy-to-use navigating features like click-on buttons, makes it possible for learners to look around within a program such as Learn to Speak English for features that they like, and that are appropriate for them.

As comprehensive as Learn to Speak English is, it manages to take up only about 10 percent of the 600 mb. of storage space available on a CD. One nice way for HyperGlot to make use of some of that available space would be to include an on-line learners dictionary, featuring simple definitions at least of the words used in the Dialogues and Settings. (Digitized video clips would also be nice, although this feature requires computing power well beyond the minimum Multimedia PC specifications, and also beyond many institutional budgets.)

However, it is worth noting that MPC programs dont need to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, owing to the ease with which an operating environment such as MS-Windows allows users to move between programs. (The Random House On-Line Dictionary, for example, is one of several on-line, general-interest dictionaries that can run concurrently with other programs under Windows.) Moreover, computer-savvy ESL professionals with the time and interest can use ToolBook or a similar authoring program to create bilingual dictionaries, grammar-based exercises, and much moreand, ideally, share these efforts with their colleagues via Internet archives.

Learn to Speak English is an example of multimedia PC software at its very best: clearly focused, easy to set up and use, runnable under even the lowest-end MPC-compatible systems, and embodying sound pedagogical principles. Far more than a thoroughly enjoyable toy, it is at once an individual tester, a tool for the learners [-3-] review, and above all a very adaptable tutor for oral English skills.

HyperGlots ability to merge strengths from each of the four Ts is testimony not only to the companys expertise, but also to the potential of CD-ROM. Learn to Speak English is a great place to start exploring the world of CDs and, more importantly, to get your students started as well.

Jim Buell
Kansai University of Foreign Studies, Osaka, Japan

Return to Table of Contents Return to Top Return to Main Page
© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page in the paginated ASCII version of this article, which is the definitive edition. Please use these page numbers when citing this work.