Sorry, I don't understand - I'm English

Famed monoglots we may be, but these days there's no excuse, writes Joanna Parfitt

We English are infamous for our reluctance to learn other languages. Yet more than half of British businesses have to deal with the Continent, and today's successful managers are expected to spend a period on an international assignment. While English seems increasingly to be the language of international business, we just can't get away with being monolingual anymore.

Nagi Siousi is the general manager of Auralog, which produces language- learning software for sale all over the world.

"There is no doubt that the best way to learn a language is through conversation," he says. "And nothing can beat real-life one-to-one dialogue in the language you are learning in the country to which it belongs."

Unfortunately, this is not always practical, for physical or financial reasons, and we British don't always feel comfortable speaking a foreign language in front of other people.

Debbie Joyce is a freelance language teacher who gives lessons to children and adults in French and German.

"Everyone learns in a different way," she says. "While some are prepared to go and live abroad with a host family for a few weeks, others prefer to speak one on one, in the privacy of their own home. I find that no one method works alone and usually combine several to achieve a tailor- made solution."

Ten years ago Mr Siousi developed a program called Talk to Me, which promised to get as close as possible to that real-life two-way conversation. All the students needed was a PC with a CD-Rom drive and they could immerse themselves in the language of their choice without leaving their homes.

Last month Auralog launched the latest version of the software, which introduces its new Spoken Error Tracking System (SETS). SETS, combined with speech recognition technology, aims to make sure that students get their pronunciation right.

Mispronounce your reply, and Talk to Me repeats it for you and the screen shifts to display a waveform and pitch-curve representation of the words. Intonation and pronunciation are all shown in graphic form so that you can compare your version with the computer's.

Talk to Me offers 100 hours of learning, dictation and comprehension and more than 1,000 exercises, but it runs too fast for the novice. It claims to be cheaper than almost any other language-learning method. The basic course costs just pounds 20 and comes with headset and microphone.

But it's not suitable for learning a language from scratch. Use Talk to Me to brush up on your rusty schoolkid French and you should be pleasantly surprised how it rushes back. Use it to learn Spanish before a business trip and your taxi-ordering skills may leave you stranded at the airport.

There is little doubt that there are good reasons for the success of the old-fashioned, if pricey (a standard course costs over pounds 200), Linguaphone approach. Those endless repetitions do serve to make you remember the words, although you have no way of assessing your accent. Even if you get only as far as completing the first lesson with Linguaphone, you will find it relevant and useful - and what's more, you will remember it.

For those with less motivation than is required for a hefty Linguaphone course, try the Accelerated Learning method (pounds 105). It feels a bit like cheating at learning a language - you start learning much as a child does, with imitating others first of all, and grammar and writing later.

Listen to the tape and follow the text in a book, then follow it again, only this time the dialogue is illustrated in pictures called a "memory map". Finally, you close your eyes and listen to the text once more, set to baroque music.

If your once-good but now dormant skills simply need a thorough wash and brush up, the Champs Elysees method may be the one for you.

This bi-monthly audio magazine comes as tape and transcript with a few comprehension exercises thrown in. Not suitable for anyone whose languages were never up to A-level standard, Champs Elysees fills a need.

More information about Talk to Me can be found on www.auralog. com; Champs Elysees can be found on www.champs-elysees.com; Linguaphone can be found on www.linguaphone.co.uk. For more information about Accelerated Learning Systems contact tel: 01296 631177.

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