One of the few delights of holidaying abroad is the chance it offers to have a conversation with the natives. I don't mean querying whether the service is compris, but the cut and thrust of debate on the cultural and political issues of the day.
Only by entering into such dialogue can we hope to bridge those chasms of suspicion and fear that have kept the world community divided for far too long.
The trouble is that foreigners - try as they might - speak English so badly. Don't you just hate it when they opt for the wrong preposition, and squirm with embarrassment when they muddle up their tenses? It can, at times, almost make you wish you could speak their language.
It's a temptation that I've so far resisted. When abroad, I resort to a sophisticated system of mime based loosely on the game of charades. A surprising amount can be conveyed, but it can lead to strange looks in cafes. I am not intimidated by this, but others might prefer to learn the lingo.
New technology should make it all so easy. As well as all those earnest packages designed specifically for use in the classroom, there are plenty of multimedia edu-tainment titles aimed at the holidaymaker.
Lingua Match, for instance, offers a series of interactive phrase books. Of course, they are not as convenient as the paper-based equivalent, unless you pack a laptop and CD-Rom drive in your luggage. But as well as the games, the graphics and the simulations, they have one major advantage: you can hear the words. What's more, on some computers you can listen to a sentence, and then record your attempt at it. You play both back and judge how well you've done. The package is available in French, German, Italian and Spanish.
But for the ultimate phrase book, you must log onto the Internet and find Travlang. It offers a quick introduction to no fewer than 31 languages - an ideal site to visit if, for example, you feel an urge to pick up a smattering of Icelandic or Czech.
It's not designed exclusively for English speakers. It's accessible in all the featured languages so it could be great fun in the classroom. Children could, say, translate from German to French. It will give them a wonderful sense of the breathtaking diversity of the world's languages.
With Travlang you can hear the phrases being spoken - if you are prepared to wait while the sound files download. You also need the software to unscramble them. This is available as cutprice "shareware" and it, too, can be downloaded from the Internet. But to understand how to do this, you have to learn a lot of geekspeak - a language that makes Icelandic or Czech seem easy.
Travlang is one of hundreds of courses that are listed on the Human-Languages Page where you'll also find links to computer-aided language programmes, dictionaries, foreign texts and newspapers.
I have already prepared for the discussions on current affairs when I'm next abroad. I have used the electronic dictionaries to look up the German and the French for "gelatine", "tallow" and "semen" - three words I wouldn't like to mime.
Lingua Match, Pounds 19.99, VCI Learning.