Travel: Let the children do the talking: Holidays in France are ideal for bringing on language skills. Helen Hewson surveys the teaching aids and sets some prep

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The Independent Travel
IF YOUR own efforts at holiday French produce a friendly smile on the other side of the counter, imagine the effect of your infants marching in to the boulangerie and asking for 'deux pains au chocolat, s'il vous plat, Madame'.

Madame will not be the only delighted person, of course. Your motive in encouraging your children to perform on holiday is not purely the desire to charm the locals. You want them to gain a head start in learning a language. Parents frustrated that they themselves cannot converse fluently, despite years of school French, feel that there must be another way.

With most state primary schools not tackling French until the top class, if at all, this means taking the initiative. The proliferation of language-learning aids available to parents of under-11s reflects this demand: videos, audio-tapes, picture dictionaries, computer software - you could spend a fortune. But if what you buy doesn't appeal to your offspring, your money will be wasted. Away from the classroom, children have to be willing victims if they are to sit still for a few minutes, let alone learn.

Although there are some very attractive picture dictionaries around, these can be counter-productive for this age group. If your aim is to get your child to sound like a native, listening and repeating will be the vital activities - after all, this is how children learn their own language.

Most computer software is aimed at secondary schools and has the same problem of not being based on sound. Promising developments are under way in this field but it will be a while before there is anything for the under-11s. The core of this review, then, is audio-cassette and video-cassette courses.

I have been experimenting on my reasonably obliging human guinea pigs: Catherine, aged five, and Thomas, seven. They have already had some exposure to spoken French through attending a children's French club and accept the idea that learning foreign languages is a natural thing to do. But in terms of attention span and level of tolerance of blatantly educational material, they are fairly representative. Any child will watch any video happily once, but one of the main criteria for judging all this material has to be 'stick-with-ability'. Two months on, many contenders are out of the race and firm favourites have emerged.

AUDIO-BASED COURSES

WITH everybody now jumping on the bandwagon, you will find inexpensive nursery- rhyme-based topics for sale in many retail outlets, from W H Smith to the Early Learning Centre. Most of these are perfectly harmless and may even provide bedtime listening for a few days. But endless renderings of Frere Jacques and the heavily accented and rather patronising English of the presenters soon pall with the children (and parents).

The dual-language tape-and-book fairy- story sets we looked at (by Vocaltech) were too didactic and drab, with the stories all in the past-historic tense and each phrase repeated three times. When you're competing with Thunderbirds and Gameboy you have to try harder than that.

The clear winner of the audio-tape section was Harrap's French for Fun and its sequel, Further French for Fun - but you can't just park your children in front of these. They are full of games such as the French equivalent of 'Simon Says' and require input (although no knowledge of French) from an adult. They work better with more than one child participating. The first tape could be used with very young children. The accompanying booklet is really for the adult's benefit.

Video-cassette courses

THE TWO main options on the market, at opposite ends of the price spectrum, are Wonderland's Bonjour les Amis series featuring Moustache the cat and the BBC's Muzzy series, the hero of the title being a sort of space bear.

The cheap and cheerful Moustache videos have a certain unsophisticated charm but are rather slow. Even young children could quite happily start with the second tape, Bonjour les Amis 2. The third one, A Day Out with Moustache, where the cartoon cat is superimposed on real-life scenes with French children, is also fun and, at pounds 8.99 per video, this series is good value for money. Written French comes up on the screen for your children to repeat, but always after they have heard the phrase spoken, which minimises the danger of bad habits forming.

Thomas is old enough to be fascinated by a new code to crack, working out for himself that consonants at the ends of words are usually not pronounced; Catherine can still be thrown by a word such as dans on the screen and revert to wrong pronunciation.

The same company is about to bring out a promising-sounding series based on Eurotunnel's Marcus the Mole, whose town is discovered by Eurotunnel during its excavations. The animation is apparently much faster and slicker than in the Moustache tapes, in order to appeal to children right up to 10, but the level of French will be much the same. The price, too, will be the same, so this is definitely to be awaited with interest. The tapes are scheduled to be released next month but, in view of the Eurotunnel connection, one perhaps should not count on it being on time.

Muzzy, originally produced for the teaching of English to foreigners, immediately engaged the children through its offbeat story and offbeat characters. There is even a real baddie, a vital ingredient in any adventure worth its salt. The unfolding of the story is broken up by short and witty teaching sequences giving more examples of particular points, for example, time-telling or days of the week. Since these sequences elicit almost as many giggles as the main story, this course really does represent learning at its least painful.

Muzzy comes in two levels and each pack contains four videos, two cassettes and some course booklets. Of the four videos, only two are in French, the other two being the English version of the same material. At first this seemed something of a cheat, but the method works. Once the children are familiar with the fairly complicated story in English they will, with a little bribery, watch it the next time in French. Eventually they will get away from translating each sentence from memory and simply sit back and enjoy it as though it were in their mother tongue. The standard of language tackled by the end of level II is impressive, with past tenses flowing. The newly released French for the Family, which uses excerpts from the Muzzy tapes to explain and practise some of the grammar found in the course, is not appropriate for the under-eights.

The French Video Company takes the idea of absorbing French naturally to extremes, selling genuine French children's videos adapted for our television system. My children have not been rushing to put on our samples even though these included an attractive, and very short, puppet version of Peter and the Wolf, a story they love. They still wanted to know the literal translation for the dialogue and got frustrated and fidgety. Friends have reported rather more success with one of the same company's Babar videos and even younger children.

One important element is missing with all this home-based material - the interaction with other children. This is where joining a French club comes in. These are proliferating as fast as the products on the market. 'Fun as the message, French as the medium' is how the successful ones operate, but you must not expect instant results. Most take children from the age of three upwards, after normal school hours, and are rather like playschools conducted in French with plenty of singing, playing and acting. Catherine, who was four when she started attending an independent club locally, has acquired a very authentic accent, which supports the theory that the younger they start, the better. There are even one or two bilingual nursery schools around if you want to take it very seriously.

The problem with young children is that what they have learnt will evaporate if they stop using it. For example, it has been found that even children who have lived in France and gone to French schools tend to forget most of their French if they move back to Britain before the age of nine. So you will have to envisage ferrying them to a French club as a long-term campaign.

Because imitating the way in which they absorb their native tongue is the ideal approach with young children, it follows that a many-pronged attack will work best. Joining a club should be part of this, mixed in with as much of the material recommended here as your purse will stand - and, of course, all those French holidays.

Further details: The French Video Company, 26 Addison Place, London W11 4RJ (071-603 4690).

Vocaltech Ltd (0708 229354).

Le Club Francais: information on French clubs from Linda Ellis (0962 714036).

Children's star ratings

FIRST CHOICE and winner by a length: Muzzy levels I and II. A huge success. However often the children watch them, they shriek with laughter. Catherine: 'I love the bit best when the baby bites Corvax's nose.' Predictably, they have chosen as favourite the most expensive option, but perhaps you can convince yourself that one set is 'only' the

price of a couple of computer games.

BBC Muzzy, pounds 99 per level, available from Early Advantage, MBI Inc, Cox Lane, Chessington, Surrey KT9 IBR

(081-391 2291).

SECOND CHOICE: Harrap's French for Fun audio cassette, and its sequel, Further French for Fun; pounds 8.95 per level. Available from major booksellers and Chambers Harrap, 43-45 Annandale Street, Edinburgh EH7 4AZ (031-558 1120; fax 031-557 2936).

THIRD CHOICE: Bonjour les Amis 2 and A Day Out with Moustache, good value at pounds 8.99 per video. Available from major video retailers and from Wonderland Entertainment (071-734 9231).

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