For Paul, who wanted to learn Latvian

Talk Now! Learn Latvian

When I got a hold of the CD-ROM Talk Now! Learn Latvian, my first response was “It’s about time!”, followed by “How come it took so long?”

If you know someone who has ever had even the slightest urge to learn Latvian, you’ll understand why.

My brother-in-law Paul is first on my list. He struggled through a Latvian language course and finally gave up because, well, naming the planets was not exactly what he needed to make dinner conversation.

We all wanted to help him, but you have to admit teaching a language takes more than desire. And even though Toronto has the largest Latvian population outside Latvia (and hence the largest number of non-Latvian speaking community members), Latvian-as-a-second-language courses are few and far between. (The exception is the “Mēs mācamies latviski” stream for children at the Latvian school Valodiņa for three hours a week).

Talk Now! is a straightforward language learning program that teaches “essential words and phrases for absolute beginners.” What a perfect solution for anyone who wants to learn basic Latvian—and not even have to leave the comfort of their own home to do so.

The program is built on the same template that’s used to teach 80 other languages, and which allows speakers of 80 other languages to learn Latvian. This means that all spoken words, with the exception of the introductory remarks, are in Latvian. In fact, a more appropriate title for the program would be Learn Latvian in Latvian, which is not as intimidating as it sounds, because the teaching is all done through images and the spoken word. A colour print picture dictionary is available for off-screen practice.

Because the program is template-based, it also means the words taught are all globally usable, as determined by the program’s U.K.-based creators, EuroTalk Interactive Ltd. Hence you won’t learn anything uniquely Latvian, such as “pīrags” or “tēvzeme,” but you’ll know how to identify a necktie and chopsticks. And for those griping about the lack of uniquely Latvian aspects, be forewarned that because Latvian is one of the later titles to be added to the Talk Now! series, Latvia is even missing from the lineup of national flags.

After logging in, choose one of nine areas to explore. To make it more fun, and not bring back flashbacks of boring class time, Talk Now! is set up like a game, where your goal is to score 1,800 points. Each area includes word and speaking practice, as well as both easy and hard games. The language areas include First Words, Food, Colours, Phrases, Body, Numbers, Time, Shopping and Countries.

One of the most impressive things about this multimedia product is that it seeks to avoid repetition by teaching language in more than one way. In the Body game, for example, two skulls iterate body parts. Click on an identified part and assemble a Frankenstein looking cadaver that comes to life when you’re finished. In the Food game, click on the right food and it pops into a shelf.

Because of this and the various levels within each section, users will find themselves making a mental list of all the people Talk Now! might appeal to. My four-and-a-half year old gets a kick out of the Colour section where clicking on the right colour alters black-and-white images. My two-and-a-half year old, who is working on basic language concepts, loves clicking on the right item in Shopping just to hear the male speaker belt out a resounding “jā!” (although his abrupt “nē!” is just as inspiring).

But most of all, Talk Now! gets me thinking about all the people this program could really benefit: Norm, Judy, Katherine, Joe, Anne, Dainis… Perhaps a Latvian organization could purchase a zillion copies and ship one to every non-speaker who wants or needs it, before they’ve totally given up on Latvian?

One section that can be a bit problematic—even for fluent speakers—is Phrases, because this relies on students matching up spoken sentences with crudely drawn images. Even I had problems figuring out which picture referred to “Es vēlos vietu pie loga, lēdzu!”

Latvian speakers who will want to have some fun and brush up on their Latvian will find the game occasionally has trouble keeping up if they move along too quickly. They’ll also be irritated by occasional errors (for example, in Latvian plums and bananas are only recognized in the plural form), and what’s with the voice confusing times of day in the opening sequence?

Overall, however, Talk Now! Learn Latvian is an excellent way to start learning Latvian. Now, if only Paul still has the desire to give it one more try…


Talk Now! Learn Latvian

EuroTalk Interactive

London:  EuroTalk Interactive Ltd.,  2000

Notes: Minimum requirements are Windows 95/98/NT/2000 or Macintosh OS 7 or above, a color monitor, CD-ROM drive and a microphone (recommended).

Mara Gulens is an editor and writer based in Toronto.

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