Growth Spurt in Bilingual-Education, E.S.L. Software Charted

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

MIAMI--Joanne Urrutia manipulates a "mouse'' to move figures around a simulated schoolroom on a computer screen, then prompts them to pronounce aloud the English words for such everyday objects as blackboards, lockers, and erasers.

Then, when the telephone rings, she picks up the receiver and answers "Hello,'' before slipping into a mixture of English and Spanish as she chats with a co-worker at a nearby school.

Signing off with a cheerful "Adios,'' Ms. Urrutia, a technology specialist with the Dade County public schools here, turns back to the screen. In English, she points out the features of a software program she is helping to develop that may enable students to cross language barriers as confidently as she does.

Produced cooperatively with Jostens Learning Corporation, the California branch of a Minnesota-based software company, the product, called "English Language Development--Primary Level,'' is expected to become a state-of-the-art tool for helping Spanish-speaking students in kindergarten through grade 12 become fluent in English.

The colorful software, which combines animation, graphics, and sound into a sophisticated, literature-based simulation of an "immersion language program,'' is one of the most ambitious joint development projects ever undertaken by a state education agency in partnership with a private company.

And the multi-million-dollar effort may well have produced a significant shift in how the educational-software industry views the bilingual and English-as-a-second-language market.

"At the time that this [project began], the [industry] did not believe there was going to be a market for this,'' said Rita Oates, Dade's instructional superintendent for computer education and technology. "Once the state did, people said, 'Wait a minute, let's go ahead and do it.' ''

Complementary Efforts

The E.S.L. program being developed here also is expected to complement a bilingual language-arts computer program for grades K-6, set for release this month by Jostens in San Diego, that is designed to ease the transition from Spanish into English.

The two programs, although developed a continent apart, highlight a confluence of trends in the application of technology to language instruction and bilingual education. The growth in the number of software programs for bilingual students may well have been sparked by the Dade project, observers say.

"I can't prove causation, but I can show [a growth of product lines] in terms of time,'' Ms. Oates said.

For several years, educational-software developers have produced programs specifically aimed at helping non-English-speaking students learn the language, as well as programs that could, with some imagination on the part of classroom teachers, be adapted to such use.

The International Business Machines Corporation, for example, has an award-winning Spanish version of its popular "Writing to Read'' literacy program, called "Voy A Leer Escribiendo.''

The program was adapted from the English-language version into three separate Spanish dialects--Mexican, Puerto Rican, and South American--by researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University.

A Growing Market

But observers say a number of factors probably are responsible for the market for bilingual and E.S.L. software undergoing a growth spurt since the beginning of the decade.

For one, school districts large and small are searching for ways to teach basic content to an increasingly diverse population of students, many of whom are not native English speakers.

Eduardo Munevar, Jostens' vice president for Hispanic multimedia curriculum and Latin American operations, said that demographic projections helped spur the company to tackle its bilingual-software project.

He cited census figures showing that between 1980 and 1991, the Spanish-speaking population of the United States grew from 14 million to roughly 24 million, creating a huge new market for bilingual products.

Dade County, for example, reports that it has enrolled more than 12,000 foreign-born students each year since 1988, with thousands of those students coming from the various Spanish-speaking nations of the Americas.

During that period, more than 1,000 Cuban-, Colombian-, and Haitian-born students enrolled each year in the Dade schools. More than 7,000 Nicaraguan-born students alone enrolled in 1988-89.

"It's a tremendous population,'' Mr. Munevar said. "And the population is a very young one.''

But others note that bilingual products also can have benefits for English-speaking students who wish to learn other languages.

"We see bilingual education as a two-way street,'' said Peter Kelman, the publisher of the New York City-based Scholastic Software, which recently entered the bilingual market. "It's important for students who are new to this country ... but it's also important for English-speaking students to develop their facility with other languages.''

Mr. Munevar and others also point out that using computers to provide bilingual instruction for rapidly growing student populations can be more cost effective than hiring a large number of additional teachers.

New Technologies

In addition, the computers used in schools--still predominantly older and less-sophisticated machines--are steadily being replaced by more powerful equipment capable of reproducing complex sounds and colorful images that their predecessors could not.

Ms. Urrutia, for example, demonstrated the E.S.L. software that she is helping to develop on an Apple Macintosh computer. The Macintosh, she noted, allows students to record their own voices during pronunciation exercises and then compare the results with the sounds produced by the electronic tutor.

Although Apple Computer Inc. created the Macintosh's recording capability for a variety of applications, the natural-sounding, digitized sound available on it and some other microcomputers lends itself much better to language instruction than did earlier, more primitive sound systems.

"It's not a 'robotized' voice,'' Ms. Oates said.

Other new technologies are also widely viewed as fueling the growth of bilingual and E.S.L. software.

For example, market analyses indicate that schools increasingly are buying CD-ROM equipment to link with their microcomputers. Because of their digital storage technology, CD-ROMs can encode and store onto high-volume disks much more complex information, including both sound and images, than a conventional magnetic floppy disk.

"You can show kids a picture of the word you want them to use, then go into the CD-ROM and [hear] the pronunciation,'' Ms. Neill said.

An Industry Awakens

Videodisk manufacturers, whose products are technically quite similar to CD-ROM machines, are another industry that has capitalized on the growing market for multilingual software.

Like many of its competitors, the Optical Data Corporation of Warren, N.J., now includes in many of its videodisks a separate Spanish soundtrack on one of the two audio tracks that are built into the silver platters.

Optical Data's "Windows on Science,'' a K-6 product, in 1989 became the first nonprint material adopted by the state of Texas for science instruction.

Colleen Coletta, a spokeswoman for the firm, noted that the product not only contains a Spanish-language track, but also is produced in an all-Spanish version.

And software developers themselves have been quick to harness the new technologies.

Following the lead of many textbook publishers, driven by market demand, and challenged by the sophistication of the new generation of microcomputers, developers have begun in recent months to offer to produce software, in some cases, in a number of languages to meet districts' needs.

Scholastic Software recently introduced a Spanish version of "SuperPrint for the Macintosh,'' a bestselling classroom publishing program.

Rather than furnishing buyers with two separate versions of the same program, however, the new version allows users simply to switch back and forth between Spanish and English at will with the touch of few keys.

Scholastic also offers to develop several customized versions of SuperPrint in languages other than Spanish for districts that purchase site licenses for the product.

A Scholastic spokeswoman said last week that there has been little demand to date for languages other than Spanish. But the company probably could create programs in any foreign language that uses the Roman alphabet, she said.

Many states--including California, New Mexico, and Texas, with their large E.S.L. and bilingual-education enrollments--are making it easier for electronic materials to be adopted for classroom use.

"All of a sudden, the software companies have begun to notice what is happening in schools,'' said Shirley Boes Neill, one of the editors of Only the Best, an authoritative annual guide to exemplary educational software, published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Native Speakers Involved

Industry observers point out that bilingual and E.S.L. software is still a small fraction of the overall software market.

Some observers also suggest that the unique challenges of developing bilingual and E.S.L. software may have slowed the growth of the market.

Ms. Urrutia, for example, said that to keep the attention of its audience, the E.S.L. software being developed for high school students must avoid the trap of seeming too juvenile for those who may well be outstanding students in their native languages, but who still are struggling with simple English sentences.

Mr. Munevar of Jostens said that having native speakers work on the firm's language-arts-development project has been important to its development.

"Usually what we find is a lot of translations'' of English works, he said.

A separate issue, he said, is to insure that the program employs standard Spanish, while incorporating regional dialects.

The system will also include folk legends from a variety of Spanish-speaking countries in both the Old and New Worlds, to give students a flavor for the richness of their native language.

"What they need is a curriculum that is truly a Hispanic curriculum, based in [Hispanic] culture and the history and mentioning the contributions of the Hispanic culture in the United States,'' Mr. Munevar said.

Nonetheless, Ms. Neill said that over the past two or three years the number of bilingual and E.S.L. titles on the market has begun to increase and shows signs of further expansion.

The K-3 portion of the Dade E.S.L. software, for example, was released late last year and is being marketed throughout Florida and nationwide. A version for grades 4 to 12 is expected to be completed this year.

While previous editions of Only the Best grouped E.S.L. and bilingual software into other general categories such as language arts, future editions are likely to group them into a separate category, Ms. Neill said.

"Through the 1993 edition, we never had enough E.S.L. software to even come up with a separate category,'' Ms. Neill said. "The software companies just were not designing it.''

State as 'Venture Capitalist'

Ms. Urrutia noted that political pressure to provide high-quality instruction to large numbers of non-English-speaking students helped drive the development of the Jostens program.

Florida's lawmakers were eager to insure that the state's rapidly growing population learned English as quickly as possible, but realized that schools often were ill-equipped to teach such large numbers of students and were often at a loss for effective teaching aids.

"The need for instructional materials is so great,'' Ms. Urrutia said. "But a lot of the software publishers were timid about jumping into this area [because] they didn't know what the market was going to support.''

Following a mandate passed by the legislature in 1989, the Florida Department of Education selected Dade County, the nation's fourth-largest school district and one with extensive technological facilities, to develop the software.

The state pledged $3 million in support of the project.

Even so, although roughly 400 companies and 60 prospective software vendors attended a pre-bid briefing in 1990, only five substantive proposals were submitted, from which Jostens emerged the winner.

Jostens, for its part, has pledged to spend at least $4.8 million over three years to develop the product.

Dade officials said that aside from the instructional aspects of the joint project, the initiative may also provide a glimpse into a new trend among states seeking to produce materials that the marketplace is reluctant to support.

"It's not like a state saying, 'We're adopting materials,' '' Ms. Oates said. "This is a state creating its own materials. The state's become a venture capitalist.''

Vol. 12, Issue 22

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories