The same computerized language course that prepares CIA operatives to go undercover in non-English speaking countries could change the way children learn foreign languages in Harford County schools.
The county's school system is the first to get a peek at the technology as 37 secondary and elementary school children "test" the computer program this summer for Analysas Corp., a Washington company.
Swanson Middle School in Arlington, Va., is the only other school that plans to test the program.
In Harford, high school and middle school students already have completed testing at Southampton Middle School in Bel Air. Elementary school children begin tomorrow. Eric Sinar, a student at Edgewood Middle School, said he has learned enough Spanish in two weeks to converse with his Hispanic grandmother in Florida.
"She said my accent is pretty good and we can talk about food and the weather and other stuff," he said.
Eric, 12, said learning the language via computer has become a game.
Never taking his eyes off the screen, Eric whips through the different parts of the program which include a humorous "interview" in Spanish between a television reporter and a "romantic opera singer" and questions which require Eric to answer into a microphone in Spanish.
"This is fun, it's sort of like a video game," he said, moving the computer "mouse" through a series of questions in Spanish, illustrated with graphics and computer animation. The program, developed by the CIA in 1985, is called "Exito," which means success in Spanish.
Harve R. Bennett, supervisor of foreign languages for Harford County schools, said the computerized language program is fun and allows students to move at their own pace. While no mechanical device can replace a teacher, he said, the computer program can stretch a teacher's effectiveness, allowing the teacher to work with more students.
"This could radically change the way languages are taught, allowing us to expand the foreign language program into elementary schools and have children fluent by middle school," he said.
While foreign languages are offered in all high schools and some middle schools, they are not offered in elementary schools -- the best time for children to learn another language, said Thomas W. Small, grants administrator for Harford County schools.
Mr. Small said he believes the computer course can cut learning time in half while opening foreign language courses to more students without hiring more teachers.
The computer program and specially trained language teachers could rotate among schools, he said.
The language program is available only in Spanish but should be available in Russian next year. Korean and Arabic should be added over the next three years, Mr. Small said.
Janet Pomilla, a Fallston High Spanish teacher assigned to the summer course, said the computer program is a valuable teaching aid because it involves students at many levels.
"Students learn to hear and speak in Spanish," she said. "They learn to read and understand the words and they are continually applying the information they have already learned to each new lesson."
Games -- such as helping a cartoon figure of a man pick his wardrobe by matching Spanish words with clothing -- reinforce learning, said Ms. Pomilla.
The program doesn't come cheap, however.
Analysas says setting up one computer station will cost about $6,000. The county borrowed the equipment and software for the summer program, Mr. Small said.
He said the computerized course will be rotated through the county'shigh schools next year.
The CIA developed the program for adult beginners. Over 10 four-hour days, the program teaches adults enough to survive in Spanish-speaking countries, said George W. Conrad, director of computer-aided language learning for Analysas.
"The course is not intended to make people fluent in Spanish, but it does make students learn faster and retain the information," he said.
Mr. Conrad said material that would require 50 teacher hours takes 10 hours with the help of the computerized course. At the end of the course, an adult typically had reached a first-year level in Spanish, he said.
"We asked Harford schools to field-test the program because we were concerned that children would not learn as fast," he said. "We knew the program worked well for CIA employees, but they were highly motivated, college-educated, and most already had
one foreign language."
But Mr. Conrad said students are learning just as quickly as adults and said the computer course probably won't have to be changed much for student use.