Computers: Lingua franca for home learning: Multimedia is breaking into the language study market. Helen Hewson looks at the latest CD-roms

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Browse in any middle-class home and you are likely to find the abandoned corpse of at least one foreign language study package. Perhaps you intended to learn a little holiday Spanish or acquire some basic business French, but somehow each time you put on the cassette your eyes closed.

A new medium which claims to combine the advantages of audio cassette, textbook and video with the ability to interact might seem to be the answer. And this is the promise held out by language- learning packages on CD-Rom.

Plenty of titles have already appeared in the catalogues, from business courses to packages for young children, but do they live up to the hype? There is certainly little correlation between price and value. The most important element in learning a foreign language is sound. Gone are the days of learning verb endings but not feeling able to utter a word. Astonishingly, one or two CDs do not offer any sound at all, being nothing more than expensive picture dictionaries.

When you have eliminated those you will find several courses where an existing book and cassette package has been put on CD, usually adding in the facility to record and compare your own voice.

Some smack of jumping on the band-wagon and, far from offering any advantages over their original format, are pretty dreary. The visually grey and primitive, not to mention wildly expensive, Berlitz Think and Talk is a case in point. French for Business, aimed at those who already have some grasp of the language, is equally dismal visually, but if you order the very good Hodder & Stoughton book and tape set as well you can use the CD-Rom just for supplementary practice.

A more successful transfer is Hodder's Hotel Europa package, a basic business course available for several languages. Again there is no visual interest, but the screen is clear and well laid-out and movement around the programme is easy. Listening and recording work well and the original book and cassette are available.

This is important in a serious and comprehensive course where you will want to play a cassette while commuting or ironing, or subside into an armchair to revise vocabulary.

Much more successful is the handful of disks developed specially for the medium which have set themselves a limited task and perform it imaginatively. Some of them are actually fun. Best of all is the Playing with Language series developed by Syracuse University and aimed at young children. These use only the foreign language - French or Spanish - are bright and clear and packed with enjoyable activities such as jigsaws.

Many language teachers believe that children should not learn to read and write in a foreign language until they can understand and speak a little, and no words at all appear on screen in these programmes. Introductory Games is aimed at children from four upwards and will have them learning basics like colours in no time.

The other product out so far in the series is Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a talking book with slightly more varied and challenging activities, such as choosing which items on the screen smell nice and nasty. With a skunk and a baby's nappy featuring in the game, our young children clearly thought this was on their wavelength.

They also lapped up the praise. On each correct move you receive a formidable or fantastique. Not only are these two programs the best of the crop but they are also the cheapest and, unlike far too many, easy to install. More in the series will be out shortly, including one aimed at adults.

Language Discovery, has some similar features to Playing with Languages, but some of the words, such as 'cat- flap', would not seem high priority even for older children and the vocabulary does appear on screen.

The other programme aimed at young children is Lyric Language, an adaptation of an American song-based audio cassette. This programme makes a thing of incorporating moving video, but it is only a Hypercard programme and the moving film is microscopic and blurred.

Courses for children at least try to make language-learning fun, but adults also deserve light relief. Asterix the famous cartoon strip, has been transferred, with some animation, onto CD-Rom and works well. The colours are vivid, the voices amusingly characterised and the explanations of grammar points and, vitally, slang are helpful. But annoyingly, you have to buy two disks to get the complete Son of Asterix story.

Vital statistics

Language CD-Roms

Hotel Europa: pounds 81 (inc VAT).

Berlitz Think and Talk: pounds 171.

French for Business: pounds 59.

Introductory Games: pounds 35.

Goldilocks: pounds 29.

Language Discovery: pounds 40.

Lyric Language: pounds 70;

Asterix: pounds 91 a disk, or pounds 126 for set.

Supplier: Cambridge CD-Rom; 0449 774658.

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