28 December 2006

I must warn all readers of the dangers of electronic study aids for language.

If the same electronic course is available in more than a handful of languages, it's most probably not worth using.


The cheapest way to produce a series of tools is a colour-by-numbers approach. Produce a list of items and a manner of displaying them, then send this list to speakers of various languages in order for them to translate it to their respective languages.

This misses a very important point: languages are all different -- otherwise we wouldn't need to learn them, would we?

What do you do when presented with a list of words where a single word in one language could be any of two or more in the other?

The first time I came across this problem was in a Scots Gaelic course TeachMe!. The two terms garden and yard are both covered by gàradh in Gaelic, but this is also spelt gàrradh. TeachMe! Scots Gaelic arbitrarily had one spelt one way and the other differently, and I was never able to remember which was which, so I spent a heck of a lot of time "revising" this because the computer thought I didn't know the words.

The approach handled by EuroTalk's TalkNow is interesting: ignore it. I have the version for Kannada a language for which there are two words for "no": beda (used to refuse an offer) and illa (used to deny, disagree or contradict). The standard template doesn't provide any space for an explanation, so they just binned one. Friends who have used the Scottish Gaelic version have highlighted the same problem. (In Gaelic, and the other Celtic tongues, there is no word for yes or no -- instead you must say something equivalent to is, is not, saw, did not see etc, appropriate to the verb used in the question.)

Most recently, I encountered this problem with the Transparent Language "Before You Know It" (BYKI) flashcard program. I downloaded the free cut-down version of their Polish flashcard package. The Poles have no concept of a city, only of towns. Both words, then, translate to a single word: miasto. As a result, when prompted with the word miasto and asked to translate it to English, you've got at best a fifty-fifty chance. Also, there's the whole matter of English vs US English. Having to type grey as gray really doesn't feel right, and I haven't seen any courses on the net explicitly stating which English they use.

In recognition of these problems, they have given you the ability to add in alternative forms. All well and good, but if the learner makes a mistake and enters incorrect alternatives, the value of the program as a teaching aid is lost.

There are other problems with grammar and idiom. To mention two:

TeachMe! Uses good morning, good afternoon, good evening, good night and good luck as a simple lesson on adjectives. All well and good... madainn mhath, feasgar math, feasgar math, oidhche mhath... until you hit Gura math a thèid leat which doesn't fit the pattern at all. But good luck is in the template, so it's in the lesson.

And how to do you handle phrases that have multiple forms in both languages? If you define different translations for Bye, Goodbye and Bye-bye, your choice will be pretty arbitrary.

This style of material will be with us for a long time. There are 43 languages in the TeachMe! range, and 41 in the Before You Know It series. EuroTalk offer a total of 113 different languages. Each of these ranges includes rarer languages, so there's not a lot of competition, and that which there is is generally highly priced. They're cheap to produce, so they produce as much as they can, knowing that lack of competition means that quality is not an issue.