Education: Home Help 7. Foreign Languages: It's easy and fun to be bi-lingual

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The Independent Online
LEARNING A foreign language is like learning to swim - the younger you are, the easier it is. For those already too old to be effortlessly bilingual, a computer is a valuable asset. Gaining fluency is principally about repetition, which language software supplies without complaint or fatigue, and with lots of games to encourage confidence and exploration.

Jump Ahead French (Knowledge Adventure, 5-8, pounds 11.99) gets kids off to an excellent start. According to the accompanying guide, children are most receptive to linguistic learning between two and six, so the software introduces tonal sounds and basic vocabulary during this critical window of opportunity. "It was very French," said Flan, six. "Even the fire engine had a French siren."

Introducing French and Introducing German (Anglia, 7-12, pounds 19.99) are ideal for older children. As well as four interactive islands, where they can listen to stories and complete some imaginative tasks, kids can learn words and sounds, even record their own pronunciation. With everything conducted in the foreign language, kids absorb the sounds and sense much more intuitively. Josh, eight, was particularly amused by "la tortue qui fait sa gymnastique". "I can't speak French," he said, "but it's fun like this because you can guess what they mean."

Budding polyglots will be equally delighted with All-in-One Language Fun (Knowledge Adventure Value, 3-12, pounds 9.99), a kind of linguistic jeux sans frontieres. The 27 games in French, Spanish, German, Japanese and English test your understanding of over 200 words. Addictive, because you quickly pick up vocabulary; and making educated guesses is the name of the game. But, I wondered, whatever happened to Italian?

Language Labs Italian (Europress, 8+, pounds 19.99) makes up for the omission. One of a series covering eight languages, the aim is to get you wallowing in the language rather than translating it, making it ideal for kids starting out. Zach, three, took to Italiano like a proverbial anatra to acqua.

Pick of the bunch for older children is The French Experience (BBC, 12+, pounds 44.99), a hefty piece of software with 300 activities and over five hours of interactive audio and video. It uses a practical conversational French in everyday situations. Once completed, you should find yourself around GCSE level.

French for Everyone (Learning Company, 11+, pounds 29.99) comes with a North American business traveller bent, but covers the basics in a lively and interactive way. There's a grammar reference section and a dictionary on this three-disc set.

Success in French (Syracuse, 8+, pounds 29.99, also Spanish) is more thorough, but rather complicated to use. Its best feature is the opportunity to record your pronunciation of any phrase, and play it back alongside that of a native speaker. You can also respond to the exercises using the microphone - unfortunately you have to hit just the right intonation for the software to recognise your answer.

If your kids are simply looking to brush up for an oral exam or holiday abroad, GSP's Speak Fluent (14+, pounds 19.95) series, covering French, German, Italian and Spanish, could prove useful. Aimed at those with some familiarity with the language, you can perfect pronunciation with its voice recognition facilities and sound wave graphics. Some of them make interesting patterns!