Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.9.13


Donald J. Mastronarde, Introduction to Attic Greek: An Electronic Workbook. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Version 1.01. ISBN 0-520-20281-3 (e).


Reviewed by David L. Silverman, Reed College, dsilverm@reed.edu.

A beta-release version of this Macintosh-only software, which is designed to be used in conjunction with M.'s Introduction to Attic Greek, has already been reviewed here (BMCR 95.2.11), as has the textbook itself (BMCR 4.5.32). The present writer agrees with the favorable assessment by Michael Halleran of the textbook, and also shares the enthusiasm of Jennifer Beach and Mary Lou Richards for the Electronic Workbook. Without any doubt this is the best available software for teaching and learning beginning Greek. Anyone already teaching introductory Greek from M.'s textbook will err in not also assigning the Workbook. Those teaching from other textbooks should seriously consider the pros and cons of using the Workbook in their classes. Those already enthusiastic about the potential of Computer Aided Instruction (CAI), and not already committed to the non-traditional approach of Athenaze or another of its ilk, may even find the existence of the Workbook a compelling reason to switch to M.'s textbook.1 That said, however, a user accustomed to professionally developed software will notice room for improvement in the implementation of the Workbook. It combines first-rate paedagogy with second-rate programming.

Students will use the Workbook to practice on their own outside of the classroom. It provides drills and instruction in four main areas: pronunciation, accentuation, verb forms, and other forms. These areas are covered by seven different modules, which are described in turn below. The Workbook does not provide any practice on syntax, and is apparently not intended to be used in class.

Documentation and On-line Instructions

Like all good software, the Workbook is designed to be intuitive, useful even with minimal or no reference to printed instructions. It succeeds well enough at this that there is no reason to complain of the fact that no printed manual is supplied with the software. A clear and concise manual is provided in electronic form. By rights, however, this should be in SimpleText format and not the proprietary format of Microsoft Word; the accepted practice, at least in the Mac community, is stubbornly to insist that Word has not become a standard.

The Word-less user can get instructions from an online help module. However, because the help window obscures the Workbook's main window, it is not possible to leave the help window on the screen and follow its instructions at the same time, as the window can not be moved or resized. Help balloons are fully implemented in this program, and in theory one could use them for this purpose. But does anyone ever use help balloons or regard them as other than nuisances popping up unexpectedly all over the screen, to be turned off as soon as possible?

Some Technical Weaknesses

The inability of the help window, and all other windows in this program, to be resized certainly makes the look-and-feel of the Workbook less than Mac-like. The fixed 5" x 7" inch cards on which the Workbook displays all of its information betray its origin as a set of Hypercard stacks, which were converted to a stand-alone application using Allegiant Technology's SuperCard. This is one of the Workbook's main technical weaknesses. Another is that none of the text which appears in the windows can be selected and copied to the clipboard; likewise, there is no opportunity within the program for the user to enter text using the keyboard. All interaction with the program is by pointing and clicking. M. was constrained by his use of GreekKeys, a proprietary keyboard layout which works with certain Macintosh Greek fonts to permit the user to enter accents and breathings.2 Clearly it would not have been reasonable to expect users to buy GreekKeys in order to use the Workbook. But perhaps some solution, such as bundling it with the program, could be found for a future version. Although the Workbook does as much as one could ask to preserve an interactive element without the keyboard, it could do much more with the keyboard. And learning to type Greek proves useful for any students who go on to advanced Greek courses requiring papers.

The Workbook is composed of seven parts or modules: (1) the pronunciation guide; (2) pronunciation practice; (3) accentuation; (4) noun forms, which also encompasses adjectives and pronouns; (5) verb forms; (6) principle parts; and (7) vocabulary drill. The Macintosh system treats these as seven separate applications, but the user interface, the SuperCard main screen, bypasses the system and treats them as seven parts of one application. One switches among them by returning to the main screen, whose buttons change depending upon which module is running. This seems rather elegant, especially if the Workbook is running on a machine with limited RAM. In other words, while going from accentuation practice to noun forms, the user does not see that in fact one application is quitting and another is starting up.

Given sufficient RAM, though, the user can bypass SuperCard's management screen and have more than one module running at once, for quick switching among them. Each module requires at least 2 MB of RAM to run, and having them all up at once uses up a whopping 14.5 MB of RAM. Moreover, if one then goes to a new module using the SuperCard main screen rather than the Finder's Application menu, the program automatically quits whatever module you were using last. This is the sort of inconvenient behavior one would expect to be able to turn off through a Preferences dialogue box. But the Workbook has none such.

Indeed, its menus are singularly bare. The File menu has only one item (Quit), while the Help menu offers two choices, Instructions and a toggle on/off for balloon help (duplicating the toggle provided by the system software). There are no other menus; even the ubiquitous Edit menu has been eliminated, so copying text from the Workbook's windows to the clipboard is impossible. Granted, the program is designed to function by clicks on its buttons. But fuller menu support could constitute a big improvement. For example, there should be a Save option, so a student could save his place in a session and pick it up again later. As it is, the customization screens reset to their default values each time a module is started up.

Compatibility Issues

The program comes on four high-density disks and the complete installation takes up just over 11 MB of hard disk space. The reviewer tested the program on a Power Macintosh 7500/100 with 16 MB of RAM running System 7.5.3 and experienced no difficulty. However, readers may need to know the minimum configuration which can run this software. The Workbook can run on any Macintosh with a 68030 processor or better and a grayscale or color monitor, will run under System 6.04 or higher, and requires only 2 to 2.5 MB of free RAM beyond what is allocated to the system. This means that older computers such as the Mac Plus, SE, Classic, LC, Mac II, and Powerbook 100 can not run the software because of insufficient processor speed. Note however that LC and Mac II designate whole lines of Macintosh computers; the only models which are not powerful enough to run the Workbook are the plain LC and II, but all later members of these families (such as the LC II or the Mac IIcx) are sufficiently powerful. A few other older Macintosh computers have sufficient processing power, but will still not work because they have monochrome (as opposed to grayscale or color) displays. These include the Classic II, the SE 30, and the Performa 200.

Pronunciation Guide

In addition to what one would expect from the guide, that is recorded versions of the sounds of the Greek alphabet, there is a welcome dose of phonology. For example, a chart shows the classification of the vowels according to the position of the tongue in the mouth during pronunciation. There are also extra paragraphs on such matters as the aspirated stops and the historical development of the diphthongs. The pronunciation practice module has only one format: the student is asked to pronounce the word, then invited to click to hear it. The recorded pronunciations, which feature the voice of M, are both pleasant and precise.

Pronunciation Practice

This is quite simple and effective. It presents a table of the Greek vocabulary for each of the units 3-8 of M.'s textbook. The student is expected to try to pronounce the word, then click to hear the word pronounced by M. By Unit 9 pronunciation practice will no longer be necessary. This section is entirely based upon self-testing; the technology which would allow the computer to assess how well the student had pronounced the word does not yet exist at the level of mass production for individual users.

All of the sounds produced by the program are recordings of specific sounds or words spoken by M. himself. So the only Greek words which the user can hear pronounced are those relatively few which have been chosen for this purpose and prerecorded. What if the user could highlight any Greek word or group of words anywhere within the software package and click on the sound icon to hear them spoken aloud? At present the quality of the pronunciation even of English by speech synthesizers, such as the ones built in to Microsoft Word and Nisus, is rather poor. It tends to sound robotic. Nonetheless, considering how useful it would be to some users to be able to hear any word pronounced, if the quality of synthesized speech improves significantly it should be a candidate for integration into a future version of this software.

Accentuation Module

The accentuation module is like the pronunciation module in that it includes both a guide and a set of practice exercises. The BMCR review of M.'s textbook singles out the section on accent for praise, and the guide derives from the textbook. No one has yet found a way to make it easy for students to memorize the rules of Greek accentuation. But the fullness of the Workbook's tutorial on accent makes it, more than other parts of the package, readily useful to students who are not using the textbook.

The practice module for accentuation is also excellent. It is better than the practice exercises for pronunciation because here the computer can respond and correct mistakes. Its first few exercises are passive: the student looks at the form, decides how it is accented and why it is accented as it is, and then clicks to see the true description and explanation. The rest are more active: the user sees a word in large type, without accent but with a notation of which syllable should be accented and necessary indications as to length of ambiguous vowels. He then chooses one of the three accent marks and clicks to place it on the word. Correct choice and placement is rewarded by a cheery sound and message. Incorrect answers get a brusque beep, and the program is smart enough to advise the user whether the error involves choice of accent, placement, or both. After the first set, the program stops telling the user which syllable to accent; instead it shows the accented lexical entry (nom. sing.) and asks him to accent a declined form. In short, the accentuation module is a model for how instructional software should work. It is elegant, simple, and transparent.

Noun (Adjective, Pronoun) and Verb Morphology Modules

These modules, which drill the student on the forms of nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and verbs, are the parts of the Workbook likely to see the heaviest use. They present a form in large type, and the user has to identify the form by clicking on the right answers in the different grammatical categories. In essence this is multiple choice testing, but if it helps students to recall that Passive is a voice rather than a mood, so much the better. The drill has a number of nice features. It waits to correct mistakes until an answer has been selected in every category. It gives students a second or third try to correct errors, if they prefer that to being shown the answer at once. In case the student looks at a form and needs to be reminded what word it comes from or what that word means, the noun and verb drills also provide clickable access to full lexical entries, including definitions from the textbook's glossary. Lastly, although it is designed to drill on the forms encountered in each unit of the textbook, it can be customized to practice on different sets of forms. This is important for those who would use it with a textbook other than M.'s.

A few features of these practice modules could be improved. For example, it seems counter-intuitive to allow students to customize the program to drill them only on consonant declension adjectives, then still have the other declensions as possible wrong choices to click on. Also, there are signs that the noun module was not fully retooled for use with adjectives. When using it for adjective drill, the student is asked to choose the genitive singular from a list; but even if the form itself is feminine, the program considers the masculine genitive singular (the genitive of the lexical entry) to be the correct choice. So if the form you are identifying is MEGA/LHN, the feminine accusative singular of ME/GAS, then in the sixth column under genitive you are supposed to choose -OU, as opposed to -HS which would be marked wrong. Finally, the paradigms could be more closely keyed to the individual words, as opposed to being organized by category. For example, if the form for identification is an aorist active participle of DI/DWMI, and the student asks to see the paradigm, the program comes up with the forms of the present active participle of DI/DWMI. Of course the student can form the aorist by analogy to the present, and that is how M.'s and most other textbooks suggest that they do it. But the program does not remind him of the rule. A future version of the Workbook could incorporate a morphological parser, which would enable it to generate paradigms on the fly instead of relying upon a few prefabricated ones.

Principle Parts Module

This consists of two parts, a drill and a match game. The drill relies on self-testing, and so lends itself to being used in an entirely passive way. The first form appears; the rest are filled in either at timed intervals or on command. A multiple choice answer format would not work here. This is a clear case of an area in which the Workbook could benefit from keyboard entry capability. The match game, however, makes up for the inadequacies of the drill. The user gets a table of twenty forms, ten of which are first principle parts, then tries to match them two at a time. A timer option adds to the fun and supplies the incentive to stay alert.

Vocabulary Module

The flash-card style vocabulary drill, although it too relies on self-testing, is a most elegant implementation. The Greek or English word appears in large bold letters. Then, the translation appears, either automatically after an (adjustable) interval or when the user clicks. Two windows at the bottom can be activated to display English derivatives of the main entry (a fuller and more whimsical selection than those in the textbook) and etymologically related Greek words. The student has the option of marking words which he did not know on the first time through with one click and then going back through just those entries with one more click. There is one obvious area for improvement here: a direct path to the paradigms, in case the student sees the word and wants help remembering what its forms look like, would be helpful. As it is, the user would have to switch to the noun or verb modules to get to the paradigms.

Customizing the Vocabulary and Principle Parts Modules

The Workbook clearly works best as a companion to M.'s textbook. How flexible is it, how useful for teaching with other books? Only two of the seven modules, the principle parts drill and the vocabulary flash-card drill, allow the teacher to introduce his own vocabulary items. The Workbook handles this by importing text files which have been formatted in a certain very precise way; mastering this format, which involves a simple alphanumerical code, is approximately as difficult as formatting documents for mail merge with a word processor. The instructions for preparing these lists, though, are a disaster. It is clear that they were not written by M, but by the programmers who assisted him. They arrive tacked on as a separate document rather than integrated into the electronic manual (which is in M.'s clear prose). Worst of all, the version on my reviewer's disk was a corrupted and garbled file. I was able to read enough of it to construct a custom vocabulary list and make it work, but it was not a pleasant experience. Nonetheless, with a good deal of time and effort, it can be done. This is something else which the Workbook could handle much better by allowing the user to enter text directly with the keyboard.


NOTES

  • [1] M. Balme and G. Lawall, Athenaze: An Introduction to Classical Greek. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • [2] GreekKeys and the Athenian font are copyright 1991 by Classical Micropublishing Inc. and the American Philological Association. They are available from Scholars Press Software, c/o Professional Book Distributors, P.O. Box 6996, Alpharetta GA 30239-6696.