101 Languages of the World

PC World.com (US)

If you want to visit the global village for real and put an end to your fantasizing over a stack of old National Geographic issues, feed your wanderlust with cheap airfare and learn how to talk to the natives before you embark. Transparent Language Inc.’s US$29.95 foreign-language tutor, 101 Languages of the World, can help you learn the lingo spoken just about anywhere.

During my review, I brushed up on a familiar language (German) and sojourned into Swahili so that I could impress a friend of mine who has lived in Kenya for the past 12 years.

Versatile but Cluttered

If content is king, then 101 Languages is certainly princely, immersing you in stories, conversations, grammar, and games designed to teach you the basics. Languages include Spanish, French, German, Italian, Croatian, Hungarian, Albanian, Russian, and other European languages; Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, and other Asian languages; Zulu, Swahili, and other African languages; and languages from South America, the Pacific islands, and elsewhere (all of the languages are listed at the vendor’s Web site). Each language component has as many as 5000 words and hundreds of useful phrases. For 76 of the languages, native speakers are used in the conversational lessons, which I found helpful for improving my pronunciation.

Too Many Windows

Putting all that content into a graceful presentation is another matter, however, and 101 Languages is more pauper than prince in that regard. The program’s Reading screen is the main gateway to the lessons. But it’s crowded, with no fewer than eight windows clamoring for your eyeballs’ attention.

The Reading screen, the largest window, displays a transcript of the language and conversation sketches. You can select sentences, words, and phrases in this window to hear them spoken, or to gather grammar and vocabulary information. Instruction in each language follows the same basic pattern: You follow a conversation that illustrates how to greet people, hail a taxi or find other transportation, arrange for lodging, order in a restaurant, and perform transactions in a shop or bank–in short, the “survival” language skills you will need as a business traveler or tourist. The conversations are backed up with vocabulary and grammar definitions, as well as interactive conversation exercises in which you play one role and the computer speaks the other.

The Reading screen describes the situation (going to the bank, for example), follows that with key phrases you are likely to encounter or use, presents a conversation you might hear in that situation, and gives a list of words you might see.

Below the Reading screen are four Translation Information windows that display English equivalents of the conversation you’re hearing and reading, plus plenty of information about grammar and syntax. Especially useful are the explanations of idiomatic phrases. The German idiom Es tut mir leid translates as “I am sorry,” but a literal translation might be “It does sadness to me.” The program is accurate in translating idioms and helpful in pointing them out.

This’ll Learn Ya

101 Languages does a very good job covering the conversational basics, and it provides a solid grounding in grammar and vocabulary for all the languages it covers. As you move through the conversations and other material, the program translates and describes phrases and words according to their grammatical function. (For example, averli persi in Italian operates as an auxiliary verb attached to a direct object.)

Three more windows on the main screen offer pictures and illustrations, additional lessons in grammar, and room for notes and for building your own vocabulary lists. (I really wanted to send my list to my Palm. Unfortunately, you can’t export it to the Windows clipboard.) The program’s intimidating interface features a few clumsy controls (separate buttons for showing the media window full screen or miniaturized, for example, rather than a toggle switch), although you can open or close any or all of the four Translation Information windows on the Reading screen to simplify the display.

Some of the program’s tools break free from the clutter to engage the learner. For example, I used the voice recorder to compare my pitch to the pitch of a native speaker, by viewing both side by side in graph form; I then adjusted my speech accordingly with good results. You never get to do that with audiotapes or textbooks.

Helping You Speak Globally

This is a solid language-teaching program, especially for businesspeople who work in different cultures and travel to many different countries. You won’t master a single language, as the lessons stick to “survival” topics, but you will be able to learn enough to gain an appreciation of the people you visit and with whom you do business. Other programs that focus on a single language often provide extras such as videos, more practice conversations, and tools that track your progress and evaluate your performance. Still, those programs are unlikely to supply the nuts and bolts of foreign vocabulary and grammar on such a broad scale. If I were interested in just Spanish, for instance, I would choose a single-language tutor. If I traveled frequently overseas, or if I wanted to stock my company’s library with a tool for global travelers, I’d pick 101 Languages.

Note that the company sells 101 Languages of the World for $49.95 through its online store, but the program sells for $29.95 at retail stores.

Copyright 2000 PC World.com (US), International Data Group Inc. All rights reserved.

Prices listed are in US currency.