Yet easier ... Easy English

Pawel Wimmer, PC Kurier, 1999, Poland

This article, translated (by Monika Morawska) with the permission of the author, has been publish in a popular Polish computer journal PC Kurier upon the release of Easy English with SuperMemo 98

The problem in learning a foreign language is not in an effort to convey a message to a person you talk to. Polite Britons and friendly Americans will accept and understand even the worst cases of broken English. They will put a lot of effort to grasp the sense of your statement! The greatest problem is to understand the spoken language! It’s enough to listen to people on a London or New York street to become convinced that understanding ordinary English is completely unrealistic even after four years of school behind you!

Since the ancient times of Hicks’ and Eckersley’s classical textbooks, lots of water has flown in Thames. After a period of absolute domination of records and cassettes, the computer entered into the picture, and made it possible to apply incomparably more effective learning methods. It made it possible to put to mothballs the inconvenient linearity of traditional recordings. At the same time, we get at our disposal more and more materials which meet the urgent need to immerse ourselves in the world of the real language.

The harbinger of the new times was a great textbook Here Is the News which offers six cassettes with recordings of continuous texts, and in May 1999, we expected LANGmaster English in Action that was to appear with analogous but wider goals (developed by Electronic Publishing Association and Sky News).

For one and half years now, Polish market has been inundated by a new course called: Easy English. This course provides a huge collection of sound recordings and a sizeable language material (several cassettes). This material makes it easier to understand speakers of CNN or BBC World.

The authors of Easy English, Amercom Ltd. from Poznan, went a step further, and contacted their Poznan neighbor, a software company: SuperMemo World. The result is a combination of the Easy English course with the well-known and tried SuperMemo technology. This is how Multimedia Easy English came to life.

Multimedia Easy English is an exact replica of the sequence of topics in the cassette version, however, it adds the dynamic nature of the interactive course, and enhances the traditional learning techniques with non-linear presentation of dialogs, vocabulary drills, multiple choice tests, cloze deletions (filling out the blanks), drag-and-drop, etc. Advanced SuperMemo techniques have been used here thus confirming again their usefulness in creating an interactive multimedia course.

The software release of Easy English (300 thousand copies in the first print-run!) is naturally provided on a CD-ROM. Each compact disk contains material with four lessons of the original course. Each month, the user will get a sizeable learning material, and the whole course will fill out twenty CD-ROMs. Additionally, an enclosed exercise book contains all course materials, and the description of the SuperMemo method (including step-by-steps instructions for using the program).

The greatest asset of Multimedia Easy English is the universal nature of the course, and the convenience in using the included sound material. A very large number of recordings makes it possible to immerse the listener in the in spoken language. The effects will be noticeable in a short period of time when the ear starts getting accustomed to the sounds of the native British English. The same happens when we watch regularly English TV channels. After some time we are able to distinguishing sounds, and then, after a couple of months, we are able to understand the news.

Unfortunately, there is no better method of learning than a continuous practice. It is like starting the car with the fourth gear – at a snail’s pace in the beginning. Then faster and faster, until we don’t even notice when tangible effects start appearing.

The present release of Multimedia Easy English can only be criticized for a not so good quality of some recordings in which some background noise can be heard. It does not make it difficult to understand the dialogs but is somewhat irritating to the ear. Secondly, the hardware requirements have been set quite high: Windows 95/98, 16 MB RAM and HighColor mode. This one factor for sure will eliminate most of computers at Polish schools!

Last but not least, the course was provided with the newest version of SuperMemo 98 for Windows (Build 9.23 EE from March 29, 1999). It is a fully 32-bit application which can handle long file names. The multimedia tools were improved and many program functions have significantly been accelerated (in some cases even 300-500%). Collections in SuperMemo 98 can include texts of unlimited length. Important new extensions are HTML, RTF and the OLE support. In the Internet era, including the functionality of HTML documents is particularly attractive. Using the program is now much more comfortable and the interface is much more informative.

As for shortcomings of SuperMemo 98, I would most of all point to an occasional problem with importing collections in older formats: the element background becomes black when default colors are in use [black-background bug was fixed upon publishing this article]. Fixing this problem requires some knowledge of templates which could be troublesome to a less experienced user (we must then remember to make a backup before upgrading!).

A major piece of functionality missing from SuperMemo 98 are non-WAV and non-MID sounds formats. The father of SuperMemo, Piotr Wozniak, should recognize the new trend in the world of the Internet, in which formats such as MP3, RealAudio and MS Advanced Streaming Format gain common acceptance [see: new sound formats in SuperMemo 2000]. To tell the truth, you may partly replace sound components with HTML components here, but in some situations this solution is not effective at all. Another imperfect workaround is to use programmable components which recognize file associations in Windows and can thus run external applications that support these formats. It’s worth noticing, that were these formats supported, the size of collections using sound would drop dramatically