Learning A Language On The Computer

Learning a language on your own is no simple task.  Back in the day the only way to really learn from home was to use books and audio cassettes (or CDs).  There was no interactive way to really learn.  So the default was going to a class in person.  For anyone who worked full time or wasn’t a student, this was a challenge.

When computers started getting more advanced, language learning software was one of the first things that appeared on on the scene.  At first it was quite rudimentary – basic vocabulary, but all the audio as if it were on a cassette.  The advantage was that you could interact with it more – better than just audio, better than just a book.

The Air Force was one of the first institutions to implement language learning software:

A new concept in foreign language instruction at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. uses individually self-paced interactive videodisc (I/V) instruction coupled with classroom exercises to help cadets live the language.

According to Major miguel Verano, chief of the language learning center and director of software development at the academy, “The I/V instruction is so vivid, it brings the foreign lanaguage and its culture to the students. They can actually interact with the material–something they couldn’t do before with television or films.”

LANS and Lessons

Key hardware elements of this new videodisc-based instruction system include 32 Sony VIEW Systems, advanced interactive videodisc workstations from Sony Corp. of America, Park Ridge, N.J. Each workstation comprises an MS-DOS-compatible microcomputer, a keyboard, a videodisc player, a color monitor and a mouse.

Workstations ar arranged in groups of four or five, in several hexagon-shaped work areas. Students work independently, each in a dedicated space, so that they do not disturb one another.

All student stations are networked to a main computer for data collection purposes. This central processor, which serves as a file server for the local area network, also tracks student activity and provides the instructor with a variety of reports. The reports include counting the number of keystrokes each student enters per lesson, the lenght of time required to answer a question, and what choices a student made during the course of a lesson.

The academy’s new technique for teaching a foreing language uses an icon-based authoring language to develop a blueprint of the entire lesson. Language content is then added in text form using a word processor.

“To create our I/V materials, instructors don’t have to learn computer programming,” says Verano. “All they need to know is what content they want to add to each class segment and then simply key in the appropriate text.”

Dissection of a Lesson

Each student spends the first 20 minutes of the class at a workstation. Cadets first select an overview of the particular lesson. This is usually a one- to three-minute, live-action video depicting a typical scene in the target country or culture–such as being in a German restaurant. The student sees and hears a person ordering in German from the menu. This sequence can be stopped, reversed and rerun at any point.

The next phase is called “manipulation.” Here, students have the option of seeing foreign language text, or hearing it, along with viewing the action video. However, this time the sequences have been “chunked.” “Chunking” refers to a technique in which a sentence is broken up into short segments or phrases. If a cadet needs help, he or she can call up a glossary showing the English translation of each word. Or cadets can get a complete sentence translation in English via a mouse click.

In addition, students can move back and forth through each lesson at their own speed until they totally understand what is occurring in each video segment.

“Air Force Academy steps into future with interactive video.” T H E Journal [Technological Horizons In Education], Apr. 1989, p. 54+

Of course, the best way to learn any language is to try to immerse yourself as much as you can, be consistent with lessons, and stick to a schedule.

I was recently interested in learning German, and turned to Rocket German after reading this review about the software.  I was quite pleased with the course — with a bit of dedication I was able to really dig into the language and come away pretty fluent in the basics.  I still have a long way to go but it’s a start!

If you want to learn a language and you have to do it from home, then getting a good software program is a great way to help yourself commit to the task.  It also makes it easy and fun.