In the March 10 Modern Languages TES Curriculum Special, Wilson Flood predicted that the arrival of online translation services such as babelfish.altavista.com could soon make language learning redundant ("Net gain or loss?" page 7). His comments did not endear him to linguists. Yet babelfish has its uses. It gives a tolerable gist translation and the howlers it produces can be turned to advantage to illustrate the limitations of machines and demonstrate to students how language works.
This is just one of countless new opportunities opened up by the breathtaking expansion of the world wide web. Never before have teachers had access to such a wealth of materials, including some from faraway countries they could never obtain by other means. Where else can you learn what is happening today in La Nouvelle Caledonie (www.lnc.ncwebpress4) or find out all you ever wanted to know about Argentina (www.surdelsur.com)?
The trouble with this treasure trove is its sheer size, although with practice you become faster at sifting the jewels from the dross. It can also be frustratingly slow and we are still a long way off the day when all schools have the capacity to cope with 30 pupils on the web at a time.
This is not a reason for dismissing it, however. Small groups of sixth formers can listen to radio broadcasts, read foreign newspapers and work independently on interactive language learning sites. And if your school has an intranet, selected materials can be downloaded and speedily accessed off-line. Nelson is one of the first publishers to latch on to this potential and offers an interesting variety of resources to complement its courses Zick Zack Neu, Brennpunkt and Au Point (www.nelson.co.ukmodlang16-19and www.nelsonitp.comzickzackindex.html).
If you feel more adventurous, you can also make up your own, as Bernard Dyer of Beal high school near Ilford has done. "I started by putting interactive revision exercises for end-of-year exams on our intranet and was amazed to see how many pupils stayed after school," he says. "Since then it has grown and grown. Some of the most demotivated characters in my Year 9 bottom set just settle down and get on with it."
His site (www.frenchrevision.co.uk) contains exercises for key stage 3 and A-level and he is currently rewriting his GCSE materials, which should reappear early 2001. He also puts work on to CDs, which students can buy to take home. "When I first trialled this with two pupils from Year 8, their results went up quite dramatically. The technological side appeals to boys. For the first time we now have a Year 8 top set with an equal balance of girls and boys."
Stephen Glover of Habergham High school in Burnley is another teacher who has a website. His "Really Useful French and German" site (www.reallyusefulfrench.co.uk) contains a wide range of material including cartoon readers, interactive reading and listening exercises, grammar practice, video, classroom tips, a German photograph library and a downloadable booklet of German GCSE oral questions. It is also a good source of information for anyone interested in authoring, as he reviews software and services available free on-line.
One of his favourites is Hot Potatoes (http:web.uvic.cahrdhalfbaked), which helps teachers to make their own interactive quizzes, jumbled sentences, short-answer questions, gap-fill exercises and crosswords. Another is Quia (www.quia.com), which allows you to create materials on its web server with no previous knowledge of the formatting language html (Hypertext Markup Language). "They are easy to use and work extremely well," he says. "To use Quia you have to be on-line but Hot Potato exercises can be put on an intranet or transferred to floppies. As these are very cheap and most pupils have a PC at home, it is a good way of issuing homework."
Puzzlemaker (http:puzzlemaker.school.dis covery.com) is another package Stephen Glover has exploited to produce crosswords, anagrams and wordsearches, which he prints out for use in class. "The puzzles are very good for settling pupils at the start of a lesson if they arrive in dribs and drabs," he says. "You can make them quickly and soon build up a bank of materials to back up whatever topic you happen to be doing."
One of the advantages of making resources digitally is the time you save, because once you have devised the basic format, it can be readily adapted or updated. "Someone in Barbados has been using my oral questions, which are all based around Burnley. She must have changed the section on climate if nothing else!" While Stephen Glover is enthusiastic about the potential of new technologies, he is wary of making exaggerated claims. "I think this is the way forward, but it is not a panacea," he says. "You have to be realistic about what you can and cannot use within the limitations of your facilities. If you take the best bits and use them in an organised manner, it will help to increase motivation - which is surely the key to raising standards."
The web is sometimes compared to a vast library with all the books piled in a heap in the middle of the floor.
Search engines are designed to make sense of the chaos, but unless you know how to use them effectively, you can still find yourself trawling through thousands of URLs (website addresses).
Each search engine is slightly different, so it is worth taking the time to read their instructions before you begin. www.google.com is particularly good at coming up with relevant sites. Another one worth trying is www.dmoz.org
Both offer search facilities in different languages. Just click on the language you want and use the same language for your search queries.
Debutants to the internet should visit www.learnthenet.comenglish which tells you everything you need to know, including how to hone your surfing skills, download files, bookmark favourite sites and build a website. Presented in easily digestible sections, it includes an explanation of how search engines work and an interactive tutorial on how to get the best out of Alta Vista.
SOME USEFUL SITES
www.linguanet.org.uk contains links to everything from Meteo-France and the French Embassy to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and La Stampa.
Another good index of resources for languages can be found at www.itp.berkeley.eduthorneHumanResources.html For a comprehensive list of newspapers and periodicals from all over the world try http:emedia1.mediainfo.com Many have their own search facilities, which makes it easy to source articles on specific topics.
If you want ideas on how to exploit what you find, http:polyglot.lss.wisc.edulsslangteach.html is full of suggestions and provides links to other useful sites. For a specific example of how the web can be used to encourage collaboration between A-level students on a long-term project, visit http:mdavies.for.ilstu.eduprojectssanders9.html There is a growing number of sites devoted to language learning. The Goethe Institut offers a wide range of materials on www.goethe.dezdemindex.htm Feline and Felix are downloadable interactive exercises in French and German designed for all levels. The full service costs pound;30 a year + VAT and new up-to-date items appear every week. To view sample materials, visit www.modlangs.co.uk
Tecla (www.bbk.ac.uktecla) is a joint production between the Spanish department at Birkbeck College and the Consejer!a de Educaci"n of the Spanish Embassy in London. It contains hundreds of texts categorised by topic and year, each with a vocabulary list and follow-up activities.
If you have an e-mail link with a school abroad, why not send them a virtual greeting card? Try www.weihnachts-web.de for German and http:cartesvirtuelles.infinit.com for French, and you will find lots of others by using a search engine in the relevant language.
When you need inspiration or advice, Linguanet Forum (www.linguanet.org.ukforum.htm) is the place to go to exchange ideas with other teachers.
And finally, to save you lugging your dictionary around, take a look at the host of online dictionaries and other vocabulary aids at www.yourdictionary.com