Can the computer help my daughter learn a new language

While there's no substitute for real-life learning with a native speaker, the computer can provide a fun variation on classroom learning. Learn-a-language CD-ROMs give kids opportunities to memorize vocabulary and grammatical constructs, imitate native speakers, take part in "virtual" conversations, and work at comprehension. Foreign-language sites on the World Wide Web are also good places to practice and play.

Be aware, however, of what computer resources can't do: they can't be readily adapted to dovetail precisely with classroom lessons. There's no way, for example, to enter or select the weekly vocabulary words and conversational exchanges kids are assigned to learn. There's no way to tailor a CD-ROM's practice exercises, quizzes, and activities to the exact words and expressions kids are studying. And that may limit its usefulness for your child.

Here are some software titles and Web sites worth investigating:

• Who Is Oscar Lake? combines a suspenseful role-playing game and language-immersion techniques. The CD-ROM from Language Publications Interactive (http://www.languagepub.com) gives kids a role to play, places to go, characters to meet, clues to track, and a mystery to solve — all without a word of English! Everything kids see and hear and read is in their "target" language — either German, Italian, French, or Spanish.

For every situation kids encounter, Who Is Oscar Lake? features separate language-practice activities. These are much like traditional exercises: reading skills, aural comprehension, vocabulary drills covering more than 1,200 words, and the like. But each activity is closely tied to the plot and is set in a location from the story: train station, hotel, gallery, police station, street, cafe. Kids soon discover that by completing these activities, they can acquire language skills that help them play smarter back in the adventure game. As a result, they devote considerable attention to the practice-makes-perfect portion of the program.

Take a close look at the children's programs your kids already have; many have a foreign-language component. The titles in the Living Books series, for example, can provide foreign-language exposure for kids in the elementary grades through high school. Eight of these interactive storybooks have a Spanish language option, and the new version of Just Grandma & Me has Spanish, French, and German. Just click the foreign language option to see and hear the text in a different language.

For younger students especially, the familiar stories and characters of the Living Books can help make them feel at home with a new language. But there are challenges for older students, as well. It's especially fun and instructive, for example, for kids to hunt up the special hot spots that trigger extra, unwritten dialogue and see if they can understand it. To check their translation, switch back to English and click the same hot spot. Living Books that feature Spanish are:

Arthur's Birthday

Arthur's Teacher Trouble

The Tortoise and the Hare

Sheila Rae the Brave

The Berenstain Bears Get in a Fight

Little Monster at School

Harry and the Haunted House

• Spanish for the Real World and French for the Real World by Knowledge Adventure/Ingram Micro involve kids 10 to 14 in real-life situations (like being a race car driver traveling through Spain) and teaches basic word groups like foods, colors, numbers, time,and activities with even some verb conjugation thrown in. These games are great fun for kids taking introductory level courses.

• Does your child need practice-makes-perfect exercises? Check out Smart Kids Software at http://www.smartkidssoftware.com/forlan1.htm for a wide variety of software choices.

• The best gateway to foreign-language resources on the Web is the aptly named I Love Languages at http://www.ilovelanguages.com. It offers more than 2000 links to resources.

• A good online source for kids studying English, French, German, Spanish, or Italian is Languages: Helpful Sites for Students at http://www.oberoi-net.com/language.html. This valuable Web page is filled with online language resources such as translation aids, language practice, vocabulary drills, study abroad programs, international newspapers, dictionaries, tutorials, Internet language courses, and much more.

• Students can also get some online tutorial help at LinguaWeb, http://www.linguaweb.co.uk. Here you'll find lessons to coordinate with schoolwork, starting with the basics through more advanced levels. Features include online quizzes, grammar tutorials, language lessons, and the opportunity to participate in scheduled language-specific chat session.

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