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Learning To Speak's opening screen is as basic as it gets. You're shown a menu of five options: pronunciation, basic and extended courses, Internet lessons, and cultural movies. Nothing fancy here, but it gets the job done.
Once you set up the microphone, you can get started with the pronunciation exercises. To master Spanish pronunciation, you must listen to vowel and consonant combinations as recited by a native speaker, then try to match his or her intonation. An onscreen pronunciation meter tells you whether you sound like a tourist or a native speaker. From there, you move to the orientation section, where you meet Gram R. Crow (get it?), a cartoon bird that guides you through basic points of grammar. Although Crow is supposed to be funny (he sounds like Gilbert Gottfried's rendition of the evil parrot in Disney's Aladdin), he's mostly just annoying.
Before you begin learning in earnest, we recommend that you take a pretest to determine your skill level. Learn To Speak presents you with a series of common Spanish phrases to which you must identify the correct replies. Based on your score, the software then determines where you need to begin your studies.
Repeat after me
The program's Basic section covers the topics, vocabulary, and phrases you'll need to know for travel: how to introduce yourself, ask where the bathroom is, and make friends. Like a good language course, Learn To Speak starts each lesson by playing audio of native Spanish speakers so that you can hear how the dialogue should sound, and it includes simple illustrations that provide context for the dialogue. Then you try out common phrases yourself. Only then does the program provide the underlying rules and structures of grammar. You finish each lesson with exercises such as drag and match, where you listen to a statement, then select the correct response. The only problem with these exercises is that, unlike most testing software, it doesn't tell you if you've answered incorrectly until you've finished the entire test. So, if you messed up on question three, by the time you find out, you may not remember what the original question was.
After you've completed the exercises, you can build up your vocabulary (numbers, time, dates, colors) and engage in branching conversations with videos of comely native speakers. Here and elsewhere, the software seems designed with romantic encounters in mind, featuring, for example, scenarios where you meet suave señores and sultry señoritas at bars and parties.
Once you master the basics, you choose which extended course to take: travel, business, or everyday life. (Of course, you can go back and take a different one later.) These offer scenarios such as asking for directions, making appointments, or shopping for food. The program also offers the ability to download more lessons from the Web and sign up for online study groups, but we couldn't get these features to work. (A technician at the Learning Company's support line said the Web site's database was being upgraded at the time of this review; he could not tell us when the site would be up again.)
As a rule, the Learning Company's tech support is prompt and courteous, but there's no toll-free number, and the hours are limited to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., CT, Monday through Friday. Technicians also pump you for information--such as your name, e-mail address, phone number, and street address--before you can get help.
When you've had your fill of interactive español, you can engage in armchair travel by watching minitravelogues about Mexican history, culture, and tourist attractions. Strangely, there's no information about other Spanish-speaking countries (such as Spain, for instance).
Good enough for flamenco
Learn To Speak isn't especially fancy. It won't wow you with graphics or special effects. And no software can replace actual conversations with real humans. Still, it's an effective tool for studying a foreign tongue, especially if you hope to meet that special someone over a cup of café con leche.