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Hang Ups

The Fish Who Could Wish, the latest talking book from the Oxford University Press (Pounds 29.99 inc VAT), struck me as special the moment I learned it was narrated by Robbie Coltrane. It wasn't that I jumped to the conclusion that this must be some crazy mixed-up fish; a fish with a death wish; a fish with six pennyworth of chips on his shoulder. No, what I liked was the fact that children are going to be able to enjoy Mr Coltrane's unmistakably Scottish lilt.

It's a sad fact that most multi-media packages especially those aimed at the home market are imported from the USA and naturally sound as if they are.

It's an issue that should bother Trevor McDonald, Sir David English, Gyles Brandreth and the rest of the committee announced by Gillian Shephard at the Conservative Party Conference. She set it up to safeguard what Prince Charles once famously called "English English". It was one of those occasions when it momentarily slipped his mind that those of us living in the other countries of his sceptred isle also have a stab at speaking the language. Nor is there one English English but thank God a multiplicity of them. Trevor and the lads won't have wasted the Pounds 250,000 their deliberations will have cost if they affirm that this wonderful diversity of accents adds to the gaiety of the nation just as surely as Gyles's jumpers.

This diversity is celebrated in WordRoot (Pounds 39.99), a new "English language exploration kit" published on CD-Rom by Speaking Volumes. It starts by offering a map of Great Britain. They can click on various points from Aberdeen to Widdicombe and hear for themselves how the locals speak.

To find longer examples of many of these accents, all they have to do is find Lumpy and click on his ear. (Lumpy, needless to say, is one of those "loveable" cartoon characters whose presence is felt to be obligatory in all educational software.) He controls a list of of words that children would find useful in English, maths, science and Scrabble. Different parts of Lumpy's head summon up the pronunciation of the word, an animation to help it stick in the mind and a list of associated words.

Other buttons enable children to uncover the word's etymological origins. So with "television", for instance, they can highlight the first half to discover the Greek root of "tele" and then on "vision" to find that it derives from Latin. Each part of the word is itself a hypertext (cross-reference) button so children can create their own word journeys, which will not only boost their vocabulary, but also impress on them that it's a good idea when faced with an unfamiliar word to pull it to pieces.

If they enjoy WordRoot they might even be tempted to forsake Lumpy in favour of what will surely always be regarded as the best CD-Rom ever pressed: the electronic version of The Oxford English Dictionary (Pounds 495+VAT). Trevor McDonald could rest easy if he knew that children had access to its 59 million words all ready and waiting to be uttered in any accent they care to use.

Oxford University Press: 01865 267979 Speaking Volumes: 01767 600580

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