SO you don't speak French like a diplomat. Your German is nonexistent. The high-school textbook promised "Spanish Without Tears." But you cried anyway.
Now, you're hankering to speak a foreign language again. Your home computer can help. A new generation of foreign-language software is emerging. It is flexible and highly interactive. If you're motivated to learn, computers can help. The move to incorporate them into foreign-language teaching is part of a larger move to bring technology into the classroom.
All this comes to mind because I've been playing with a computer program called "Transparent Language." It comes from a Hollis, N.H., company of the same name. Its premise is simple. If you want to learn a foreign language, read as much of it as you can.
The software works this way: Users read texts on the screen. When they come to an unfamiliar word, they can look down at a window that translates the word - or another window that translates the complete phrase. The texts are real literature, ranging from Guy de Maupassant's "La parure" ("The Necklace") to an excerpt from Cervantes' "Don Quixote."
After trying a German selection, I came to some conclusions: The translations are very good; it would be hard to learn grammar using this program alone; computers won't threaten a professor's job anytime soon; students can learn a lot by working through a German text (even if, like me, they know only four words of German).
The program has a traditional text-based interface. Transparent Language offers a separate cassette to hear the German text spoken aloud (an added $6 to $20 to the cost of each title, which usually runs about $20).
The new trend in foreign-language software is to integrate text and voice on the computer, throw in some graphics and maybe even some video. (The buzzword for this is "multimedia.")
One of the best multimedia experiments I've seen comes from James Noblitt, a fellow at the Institute for Academic Technology at the University of North Carolina. His program shows real-life situations.
In one example, you see and hear French children buying pastries in a pastry shop. …