The language lab instructors at Howard Community College are patient, playful, accurate -- and driven by CD-ROMs.
Language students at HCC spend time hunched over their desks wearing headphones and playing with computers embedded in the desks -- much like tabletop video games.
These French, Spanish, German and English students are using the cutting edge of computer technology. With the installation last fall of 24 CD-ROM-based computers, HCC has rocketed ahead of local big-name universities in the field of computer-assisted language instruction.
"We have perhaps the most sophisticated foreign language lab in the area. CD-ROM is going to be the wave of the next 10 years until they invent something more exciting," said Cheryl Berman, an assistant professor of foreign language at HCC.
The high-tech language lab cost $75,000 to build, and each of its 50 copies of instructional programs costs $200 to $600.
The Johns Hopkins University will not be integrating CD-ROM into language classes for at least five years, although Donald Clark, supervisor of the language lab at Hopkins, would like to have the facilities as soon as possible.
"It's definitely the wave of the future. I think it is the best technology that has been developed so far for teaching foreign language," he said.
The University of Maryland College Park does not have a CD-ROM lab yet. Neither does the university's Baltimore County campus, although it has plans to build one next year.
The CD-ROM programs act as personal instructors, teaching students about foreign cultures while helping them to develop ,, listening, writing, verbal and visual skills through games, stories and quizzes.
The most exciting advantage of CD-ROM, said Ms. Berman and Victor Cummings, who runs HCC's English as a Second Language program, is that it allows students to listen to the language being spoken, watch video images that correspond to the words, write in responses and speak with the computer.
Every computer in the lab is equipped with headphones, a mouse for controlling and interacting with the program, a keyboard for writing in responses and compositions, and a microphone for practicing pronunciation.
Multimedia exposure -- the stimulation of several of the students senses at once -- means that CD-ROM can offer a better rate of absorption of information, say those who favor the approach.
The multimedia feature makes using these programs the next-best thing to actually being immersed in the foreign culture, they say.
Ms. Berman said the new programs have revolutionized teaching. Shy students can avoid stage fright and learn better when working with the computer, and students with wandering attention can stay entertained by flipping from program to program. It is so entertaining that it encourages otherwise reluctant students to stick with the language, Ms. Berman said.
Without CD-ROM devices, the best tools a teacher can hope for are video, which engage only the eyes and ears, or computers without CD-ROM, which can run games that help students learn grammar but cannot speak or interact with them.
CD-ROM also gives students the advantage of controlling the pace and level at which they learn. "Having something individualized and flexible is a good thing," Mr. Cummings said.
Since it was installed last semester, the lab has proven to be popular. "The computer program ties things together, makes me remember and keeps my skills up to par," explained freshman Matt Watkins.
Ms. Berman encourages the students to use the computers as much as possible. "What I've noticed from last semester is that my drop-off rate, which is usually high, has gone down," she said.
"I only lost six students out of 120, an extraordinary success rate. I think that the computers had a lot to do with it, because the students can surround themselves with the learning. It is going to become how languages are taught because it is a total approach to learning language."
Fawad Malik, who came to the United States from Pakistan five years ago, said he loves the new method of learning. "I like the CD-ROM because I develop my listening ability and how to use new English words," he said. "If they didn't have this computer here I wouldn't ever be able to use one. It's fun."
Dr. Henry Link, chairman of the English and Foreign Language division at Howard Community College, said the reason HCC has this much-sought-after facility is because HCC President Dwight A. Burrill and his administration are "very technologically oriented."
Mr. Cummings first learned about the new language-instructional software at an International Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages conference in 1992. "Everyone was talking about multimedia, and it was obvious that this kind of resource was a good thing, and considering HCC has the resources to provide such a facility I said, 'Yes!' " he said.