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Complete Spanish Learning - A Good Buy Despite Some Glitches

By Eric W. Vogt

Complete Spanish Learning Suite 2006 contains five separate language-learning programs: LinguaMatch, Learn Spanish Now, Before You Know It, Lexicon, and Global Writer. All good programs, but installation woes bring down otherwise top-notch language software.

Complete Spanish Learning Suite 2006, from Transparent Language, Inc., is a bundle of five separate programs and five audio CDs that offers beginners an array of effective language-acquisition tools designed to satisfy every type of learning style.

For visual learners, LinguaMatch presents newcomers to Spanish with over two dozen computer-generated virtual spaces simulating various human environments. Restaurants, cities, bars, airports, and so forth are populated with people and the items typically found in such places.

By passing the cursor over the items, you hear a voice name the items. You can also move to various types of activities within these environments to reinforce learning and pronouncing the vocabulary. The architecture and logic is great, but it takes considerable patience, experimentation, and exploration before you can begin to feel comfortable using it all.

Before You Know It is a flashcard program that allows you to not only learn the many lists they provide for beginners through intermediate learners, but also to create your own, and to import and export them. This is a great little program with lots of needed repetition, even if it is a bit hard to navigate. 'll explain that in somewhat more detail later.

Learn Spanish Now!, the most up-to-date component with videos of real people, also has a grammar component. This is one of Transparent Language's traditional strengths for years, due to its depth of dissection, description of words, and its component parts.

The Lexicon is also very good for beginner to intermediate learners and offers a level of detail not often found in other dictionaries of this size designed for beginners. On the other hand, the Global Writer program is a superfluous add-on, since it doesn't do anything but enable a user to type characters in many languages (Chinese, Thai, and so on) and has no direct application to any of the language-learning components. Learning the keystroke combinations of ALT + number pad is faster and far more efficient for producing accents, upside down question marks, exclamation points, and the unique "ñ" of the Spanish alphabet.

Learn Spanish Now!, with its real human actors and the various accessible learning activities in it is by far the most appealing visually, if not also the most pedagogically effective program in the suite.

But LinguaMatch, with its lexical richness and virtual environments, and the quality of its sound (output more than reproduction of input) make it a good tool also. It's a bit more sophisticated than the flashcard program Before You Know It.

All in all, these three distinct programs make the suite a good buy, if you're willing to go through some frustrating moments installing and learning to navigate through them. It is relatively easy to navigate in Learn Spanish Now!, using the toolbar options. With a little practice (and initial frustration), users will learn to navigate in the content and activity-rich immersion environments and take full advantage of all their learning opportunities.

By far, the toughest thing about this suite is keeping straight in your mind the names of programs and where they go as you install and organize the downloads. The programs in the suite were designed for Windows 95 and subsequently tested to ensure they would work on later versions which, happily, they do. Those familiar with the history of downloadable programs will recognize that the shortcomings of older programs (in this case Global Writer, the fifth program in the suite, and Lexicon) is that they load to different folders and are not immediately accessible via a shortcut icon from your desktop. For users, this means having to search for them on the C-drive and move them into a folder on their desktop (where you can place the whole suite).

Transparent Language's tech support person acknowledged that the programs "were not easy to put (download) into one spot" and that this could be "confusing." The most confusing aspect of the download process is that the programs to be downloaded have discrepant names. Whether it's the printed card, the opening screen of the DVD, or the icon names that appear, the names can be different enough to cause users to wonder if they are the same as the ones listed elsewhere. For example, what is called "Spanish Now!" on the printed card is called "Learn Spanish Now" on the DVD, and appears as "Language Now" on the desktop's shortcut icon.

Since this is a suite of previously produced software programs, nothing is new about any of these programs except their availability in one package at a good price to value.

Price to Value

What's Hot:

For a nickel short of $100 dollars, this suite is a good buy. However, the excitement of having a suite of Spanish learning programs might wane if users have to undergo hours of installation questions and woes only to discover that the packaged programs are not specifically integrated. When I saw that there was a suite of programs, I thought they would consist of one program that was a console of different integrated activities, not merely an assemblage of separate and distinct, and in at least two cases, older programs. Yet from a price-to-value perspective, once you load them and figure out how to use them, you will find that all of the programs are very good.

Voice-Recognition Features

What's Not:

If you are thinking of buying this suite because of the voice recognition portion of Learn Spanish Now!, be aware that only the Speech Meter seems sensitive enough to give learners any indication of how close their speech compares to the native model.

Users may also want to be sure that their microphone is sensitive, and that their sound card and so forth are not to blame for this problem. It is not the first time I have encountered this problem with Transparent Language's voice recognition features over the years and on many different computers. Despite having had plenty of help from instructional resources and computer departments.

Installation & Setup

What's Not:

The installation instructions on the small printed card that accompany Complete Spanish Learning Suite 2006's disks tell the user to install "Before You Know It, Spanish Now!, Spanish Grammar Pro!, LinguaMatchTM, Lexicon, and GlobalWriter" using the DVD in the package. The printed instructions say little else, except that the DVD will contain further instructions.

These instructions also inform the user that the Everywhere Spanish CD is an audio CD that doesn't need to be downloaded. It's good they included that information, because when I loaded the DVD, I became confused about what the printed material had led me to expect would be on the DVD. The only names on the list of files on screen that had also appeared on the printed card were Before You Know It, Spanish Now!, Lexicon, LinguaMatchTM, and GlobalWriter. Spanish Grammar Pro! was missing. Clearly there is a version control problem between the programmers and the writers of the text. If the writers and programmers are one in the same, these discrepancies result from not proofing their work, or not updating it from some previous versions of programs in the suite.

There were five programs in the suite to download and four other links on the list on the screen. The four others were not programs to be downloaded, but rather "Language Now Guided Tour, Take the Before You Know It Tour, BYKI Pod Video" and "Explore BYKI Pod File."

During installation of the Lexicon program, a prompt appeared telling me that I was loading LinguaMatchTM, but upon continuing, the questions in the interface gave the appearance that I was installing Lexicon. When I proceeded to install LinguaMatch, all the interface language became consistent again. This is another example of a version-control problem that should be resolved. After downloading some of the programs, there is a prompt to reboot. This delays the whole process, but once I had installed all of the programs from the DVD, three icons appeared on my desktop (Lexicon and GlobalWriter had not because they are older programs designed for Windows 95). It took a call to Transparent Language's tech support to find out about Lexicon and GlobalWriter and that GrammarPro automatically loads with Spanish Now. And why the multiple icons on my desktop? When buying one package, I'd expect all its components to download smoothly and be accessible via one icon.

Also, the packaging tells you that a microphone is an optional feature. However, LinguaMatchTM and Learn Spanish Now! each have a voice recognition feature, a major selling point for many consumers. I had the luxury of having a hardware expert work (for free) with my computer for almost an hour to ensure that my microphone worked only to discover that LinguaMatch's voice recognition feature didn't. The installation DVD was in the driver, as per the instructions (more on that later in this review).

Bottom line: The discrepant names for the software programs in the suite, found on the printed card, the DVD, and the icon names, need to be fixed. If Transparent Language would get this info right, instead of relying on the internal troubleshooting guides (formatted like Word), it would be a big help. A short printed manual would help also. If not for these flaws, consumers would fall in love with these great tools that right now seem just out of reach.

User Interface

What's Hot:

Judging from the menus and what one discovers after patient exploration, the variety of activities and volume of materials available to reinforce and test the learning of vocabulary is impressive. Pronunciation (with the proviso already mentioned) and comprehension capabilities are exemplary in all three of the language-learning programs; Learn Spanish Now!, LinguaMatch and Before You Know It.

What's Not:

In Learn Spanish Now!, the toolbar options available are sufficient to learn how to navigate with some practice.The navigation buttons are not as intuitive in LinguaMatch and Before You Know It. To add to that frustration, the display of their functions in the pop-up comment windows when you leave the cursor on them is delayed and therefore elusive. In Before You Know It, there is no easy way to go back to a previous screen, at least while in some activities.

One last observation about the user interface may seem trivial to some, but it's of the utmost importance to those who focus on what lies beyond the task of learning a language. When you click inside the window of the flashcard program, the virtual hand holding the card changes gender and color (race). It is great to remind people that being Hispanic is not defined by race but by language, but it seems better to just come out and say it directly. In other words, considerable technical effort was expended to deliver a message that could be misinterpreted in terms of U.S. culture, or missed entirely. While race and gender issues are certainly present in the public arena in the more affluent sectors of the Hispanic world, they are frequently eclipsed by more substantive socio-economic matters. The same message could have been addressed overtly without the possibility of being misinterpreted through the American filter of political correctness. Despite the US Census Bureau, to be Hispanic, according to Hispanics, is to "own and have command" of Spanish as one's native language and is not judged by outward appearances or citizenship.

Product Features

What's Hot:

Learn Spanish Now! is the program with the greatest visual appeal and easiest navigation through the toolbar. It uses high-quality video and sound, real human actors and poses just the right level of difficulty for beginner-to-intermediate learners.

LinguaMatch, the virtual environments for learning and practicing vocabulary (even pronouncing it) is a rich and varied place and is a lot of fun. The pictorial quality will remind some users of some of the early computer games though, such as the ones where you might build a city or fight a war. It has a very "early '90s" look and feel to it.

The flashcard program Before You Know It is great too despite some drawbacks in the usefulness of the voice recognition features.

What's Not:

In the area of voice recognition software, Transparent Language has not delivered any significant improvement over what they were producing in the 90's. Perhaps if I had realized that the suite is a bundling of older programs, I would have lowered my expectations. While the quality of the male and female native voices and the output sound is truly great, there are a number of problems with the reproduction of the input sounds. That is, the ability of the user to hear and compare his or her voice with the models.

Additionally, across the suite of programs there is uneven quality in the reproduction of input sound. Although Transparent Language has a lengthy and convincing series of explanations and instructions in its help pages about how to use and interpret the data in the voice recognition area, in practice, they fail to convince. The only piece of data generated by the voice recognition feature that might be of any real value is the Speech Meter.

It seems responsive enough to variance from native pronunciation as to be praiseworthy. However, with regard to the wave form graph, users are reassured to only try to match the general pattern of the native with their own, not the exact contours, since pitch and frequency vary widely. Despite the assurances of theory, the horizontal line of the user's wave form graph becomes so wide after a few recordings as to fill the entire field with gray, making it impossible to see any distinguishable pattern at all with which to compare one's speech with the native models.


What's Hot:

In terms of performance and appeal, the best program in the suite is the Learn Spanish Now! program. Second, the LinguaMatch program and third, Before You Know It, the flashcard program. I noticed an error in that the word "pollo" was called chicken. Chicken indeed, but chicken on the plate, not running in the barnyard (the photo showed live chickens). In Spanish, there are hens ("gallinas"), roosters ("gallos") and chics ("pollitos"); as soon as one of these winds up in the grocery store or on the plate, they all become "pollo." One pedagogical defect (more grave than a single and rather excusable error) is that in presenting the nouns to be learned, the gender of the nouns is de-emphasized by not including the definite articles. This needs to be fixed. However, the great thing is that the flashcard program can be built with lists imported and exported. Therefore it will grow and be useful to learners even after the language-learning potential of the programs have been fully exploited.

Despite its few defects, it is a good suite of programs. The Audio CDs are terrific. Their portability gives access 24-7 to hearing and thinking about what one hears which is a real plus for any package.

What's Not:

The most glaring defect with the package is that there is no convenient user manual for the whole suite, particularly for installation, as mentioned. This is likely due to the fact that the package does not consist of one, but of several separate programs. Nevertheless, some sort of guide should be provided, since consumers are likely to buy this product with the expectation that the programs are coordinated, integrated, and that one icon will appear on the desktop opening into a console offering a menu of activities, tools, and so forth.

The most frustrating thing I found about LinguaMatch in particular was that the navigation buttons were not very intuitive. The help files generally were exceedingly long in all three programs. In order to assess the performance of the flashcard program, I had to experiment with a number of work-around solutions in order to go backwards to find menus of vocabulary or activities. Additionally, from a pedagogical point of view, two of the vocabulary-learning activities in Before You Know It provide no assessment tools. The only thing required to advance in some levels is to keep clicking away. Parents are advised that they will need to ensure that their kids are actually thinking about the associated meanings of words as they click.

Help & Support

What's Not:

I called Transparent Language's tech support line three times over three days. The first two times, after going through the lengthy recording of options and selecting the one that would lead me to a live person, the line went dead. The third time, the person was quite helpful, but once my initial question had been resolved, (about installation and the problem of icons, old programs, and so on) I was told I should address any other questions via email. One question and your done apparently.

Suggested Features

Fix the installation problems; edit all documents, printed and electronic to eliminate the discrepant names on lists of the programs to be downloaded; provide a short manual and improve the voice recognition feature. Also, improve navigation in LinguaMatch and Before You Know It.

Even if solutions have surfaced for many of the problems I encountered in these programs, they have only come to light after my conversation with Transparent Language's technical support person. Remember, two attempts to contact them failed through no fault of mine. If you live west of the Mississippi, like most of the USA now does, you may have to get up early to find them at work.

Final Thoughts

This suite is a good buy, despite some glitches in the installation process. All the programs work, have great content, and are visually appealing. Transparent Language's forté of in-depth grammar analysis will appeal to many learners. The rich virtual environments in LinguaMatch and the high-quality output sound with native models is also a real value. For the true beginner, the flashcard program is dynamite. The true beginner doesn't need to navigate any direction but forward.

I would recommend this suite to junior high or high school students, although its content will also engage adult beginners.