To make full use of any of these programs you will need a PC (or Macintosh) equipped with CD-rom, a sound card and a microphone. The idea is that you listen to the computer, record your own voice reproducing what you have heard, play back your efforts and then listen to the original for comparison. The advantage over using a tape recorder is that the playback is almost instantaneous and you can quickly hone your performance to match the target.
Hyperglot's Pronunciation Tutor - available for French, Spanish and German - is recommended, even for those who can already roll their Rs with confidence. It starts with the basics - vowel sounds and the letters of the alphabet - but also has sections for practising vital vocabulary such as numbers, days of the week and so on. It culminates in exercises for intonation and phrasing. Age: 11 and over.
Hyperglot also offers the multimedia Learn to Speak course (which includes a companion textbook) in French and Spanish. It is suitable both as a refresher course, and for the motivated beginner who is willing to plunge straight in. The storyline (about the everyday experiences of a business traveller) unfolds over 30 chapters, each episode introducing more advanced grammar. As well as listening to the dialogue, you see situations and can also watch the speakers talking through small video windows. Plenty of different activities test your comprehension and grasp of linguistic technique. Age: adult.
Triple Play Plus takes a more light-hearted approach that is suitable for younger users as well as adults. It aims to expand your everyday vocabulary in French or Spanish through games and cartoon strips. The developer, Syracuse, has gone one step further with the listen-and-repeat method by including voice recognition. In one game you name different foods and the computer tells you if it recognises the word. This provided my family with hours of fun and succeeded in teaching us all vocabulary that will certainly come in handy when shopping on holiday. Age: seven and over.
Stories featuring the cartoon-character Asterix have an established tradition in teaching French, and now the invincible Gaul can help with Spanish too. Eurotalk has CD-roms for both languages. These programs provide an interesting challenge for those with an existing grounding in the language, and their grammar notes and translations are helpful. But will the language of a Gaulish fishwife really help you on your business trip? Age: 14 and over.
If you are looking for a refresher course that is relevant and modern, my recommendation would be Libra's Telephone Talk series, available in French, German and Spanish (and Dutch shortly). Here, you are put into the situation of trying to understand a telephone conversation; as you listen to what they're saying, photographic images provide you with clues. The program tests your comprehension in ingenious ways: by asking you to identify who is being talked about, to locate destinations on the basis of directions, to point to items on order forms, and so on. As in the other programs, there is also a speaking-practice option where you record your voice and compare it to the original. This is my pick of the lot. Age: 16 and over.
Pronunciation Tutor (pounds 69.95) and Learn to Speak (pounds 139) from Hyperglot, from Guildsoft (01752 895100); Triple Play Plus (pounds 75) from Syracuse, and Asterix (pounds 59 per disk, pounds 99 for two-disk set) from Eurotalk, from Koch Media (01252 714340); Telephone Talk (pounds 89 per disk, pounds 149 for two-disk set) from Libra Multimedia (01753 864547). All prices exclude VAT.