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It’s not always the most expensive software that works best for everyday use. For example, there’s Microsoft’s Picture-It, which runs high dollar for a massive box full of graphics applications that soak up a statistically significant percentage of your hard drive and isn’t nearly as useful for viewing your digital pictures as a humble little shareware program like IRfan.

The same is true with language software. We have a certain interest in communicating with humans of the non-English speaking variety, and so we have tried a number of different language CDs, most of which boast various extraneous capabilities such as record and playback, video clips, and any number of features that turn out to be basically useless when trying to learn how to say much beyond the “hey, what’s up?” level, or more precisely, the “good day, how art thou?” level, as most of this sort of language instruction seems to focus on how the nationalized broadcasting system wishes people would speak instead of the way they actually “parlay the fransay.”

What has been an interesting discovery over the last few years is the process in which we have learned our various human tongues. Following the first stage, otherwise known as “I can’t understand a word you are saying,” is the heady second stage, the “Check this out – I can actually talk this smack!” phase. Unfortunately, the third stage is a long and frustrating one, namely, “OK, I know this one … hold on … wait … oh, forget it … sounds like …” This is the point at which you start to realize that while you may understand everything involving grammar, pronunciations and irregular forms, what is now holding you back is your vocabulary.

Enter WinFlash. We have the hots for this little program. Were she human, she would be that adorable 5’2″ blonde for whom you have a total jones but you figure is probably just a bit on the young side when she unexpectedly walks over and reveals that she’s not only already graduated from law school but has passed the bar and is now a junior partner at a downtown law firm and, by the way, is wondering if you might like to join her for a margarita over Happy Hour. At which point you suddenly lose your entire ability to speak English or any other language and are reduced to dumbly nodding your acceptance and praying that you don’t say anything too blitheringly stupid when you’re finally able to make use of your voice again.

So what, precisely, is this fair object of our infatuation? Essentially, WinFlash is a computerized system of flash cards. You build a deck using one of four possible card styles, Standard, Fill-in-the-Blank, Multiple Choice or True/False. Standard is just a basic flash card, with two sides that can be filled with text, graphics or sound files. For language purposes, we tend to most frequently use the Fill-in-the-Blank style, with the English word on one side and the foreign word on the other. It’s not necessary, of course, but we like the added challenge of not only knowing the word but spelling it properly, too.

We have been most impressed with the results of using the program. After downloading an Italian deck of 650 verbs, our average success rate went from less than 20 percent to over 65 percent in three weeks. This did not involve particularly a serious effort, as we have simply run through 100 random cards twice a day, which involves two six-minute sessions, for a total daily time commitment of around 12 minutes. This expanded vocabulary has translated into an improved speaking ability as well, as Italian-speakers of our acquaintance were left with the impression that we had begun taking language classes again. Not bad for a program that, at $25, is one-third the price of other, fancier language aids.

In addition to the vocabulary drill, we’ve also found that WinFlash works quite well as a workbook substitute. We took the liberty of copying one of our workbooks into the card format and have found that the ability to repeatedly run through an exercise on the computer is a lot easier than writing it out on paper. Not to mention the fact that we’re a lot more likely to have our laptop handy at random moments than one of our language workbooks. WinFlash supports a variety of characters through customizable icon bars, so the various oddities in Italian, German and Spanish are easily accounted for.

WinFlash also includes a fair amount of options, so if you want to set things up in categories, randomize your decks, run through reverse sides, set specific time-scales and keep track of your correct percentages, you can do all those things. It is a bit of a do-it-yourself program, despite the existence of various language decks (including Guarani! Yes, Guarani!), as well as other random decks such as those used for learning “common non-neoplastic conditions,” “amino acids and their chemical structures,” and of course, “Chemical, Biological and Radiological Warfare,” contributed by Mr. S. Hussein. OK, the web site says that the CBR Warfare deck was actually contributed by somebody called Todd Fowler, but we all know that’s just a nom de plume.

You can find all of these downloadable decks, as well as a 30-day trial version, at http://www.openwindow.com. Being a big fan of the software, we’ve pestered Mr. Bryant, the creator of WinFlash, and learned that he is currently working on a new version 7.0, which will reportedly offer, among other things, the ability to handle up to six fill-in-able blanks per card, which is just the thing for verb conjugations. For teachers, there’s also a version of WinFlash which is designed to handle the production and management of tests – WinFlash Educator, which runs $34.95. If you’re trying to learn pretty much anything requiring rote memorization, we highly recommend you check this out. Dude, Guarani! How can you not check it out?

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Recently I read about a device that provides excellent telephone conversation privacy. It is also affordable by consumers. I just can’t remember what it was called or how to get additional info about it. Would you be familiar with any such device?

THUS SPAKE VOX: We’ve never heard of it, but perhaps one of our readers has. So how about it … anyone … anyone … Bueller? E-mail us and we’ll pass it on. We would also like to thank the reader who contributed the theory that Mr. Larry Ellison, Apple board member and Nazi rat bastard, is behind Apple’s refusal to respond to our uncharacteristically polite request to review their Macintosh products. It’s probably not true, but we’d sure like to think that it is.

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