What generally happens in life is you learn a bit of French at school, then think you can speak it just about passably. Then you go to France and discover you can sort of get by. A trip to the bakers involves a lot of smiling and pointing and saying the word “pain” (which means bread, but indeed the English definition might be more appropriate).
Should anyone ask you a question, however, you’re completely stuffed, as the natives speak at approximately three zillion miles an hour, which never happened on those GCSE French tapes.
If you want to improve your chances of understanding such verbal blurs, then the latest Berlitz language suite will surely help. It’s a “full immersion” learning experience, which means that it teaches using video clips of real life situations and conversations. As well as this, it offers a variety of learning methods.
Alongside the PC/Macintosh program itself, there are four audio CDs which contain language lessons you can listen to when you’re away from the computer. There’s also a disc of MP3 lessons that can be transferred to your player for mobile sessions, and Palm or Pocket PC owners can link their devices up to the program and import flashcards.
The philosophy here is “little and often” – taking short lessons for ten or twenty minutes every day which you can grab even if not sat at the computer. These are much more effective than longer, irregular stints, because you absorb more when regularly exposed to a language. This definitely makes sense to us, and Berlitz has even gone as far as including a French screensaver in the package, which flashes up sentences with missing words to fill in.
Of course, all that doesn’t really matter if the central program isn’t any good. Fortunately, it is. It divides itself up into “immersion environments”, some of which tackle the fundamentals of the language such as common verbs or nouns, while others provide videos of everyday situations, from a shopping trip to a birthday party.
The idea is you watch the videos or read through the basic material, then click on the reading tab (the interface is all neatly tabbed) which lets you go through every sentence with a full translation, both written and spoken. There’s also a grammar window, imparting knowledge about the exact nature of any particular word.
To help you commit words to memory, Berlitz includes a flashcard program which is a useful extra, though it does tend towards repeating the same words too often. We guess the idea is that this really drums them into your brain, but we still felt it was over-the-top at times.
Once you’re familiar with the vocabulary and general gist of the various sentences, there’s an activity tab that offers up a range of knowledge testing games. These include crosswords and simple sentence exercises where you’ve got to put the words in the correct order, or click and highlight all the verbs. They’re fairly basic but fun nonetheless.
Your spoken French can be polished using the pronunciation tab, providing that you have a microphone hooked up to the computer. This not only gives you an accuracy rating compared to a native speaker, but actually breaks down your speech into a number of graphs detailing elements like pitch and vowel sounds.
In all honesty we found these fine details confusing at times, and of questionable accuracy, but they were useful in seeing where we were going awry in terms of pitching certain words. Generally, however, we just stuck to the overall rating to gauge how well we were performing.
The final tab, Conversations, gives you the chance to participate in and record a full conversation, then listen to yourself being played back.
We could level a slight criticism in that there isn’t a huge amount of video, as half the immersion environments are just based on straight word and sentence exercises, but there’s such a wealth of content elsewhere that it would be unfair to do so. Considering the very reasonable price, combined with a sixty-day money-back guarantee if you’re not satisfied, this Berlitz offering is very tempting indeed.
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