We all know that there is no substitute for total immersion, but long stays abroad can be difficult to arrange, so second-best has to do. Traditionally, that has meant static and rapidly obsolete material like newspapers and magazines, but satellite television has changed all that, and what a bonus it is. For Germanists, its advantages are really exceptional, but all modern language teaching can benefit from it.
With off-the-shelf equipment locked on Astra 19E, I can get 24 recordable German television channels and upwards of 13 German radio channels, without any subscription to pay. I just check what's on in TV and Satellite Week (75p) and press the zapper. I can also get Spanish (Gala). But for French I need a steerable dish.
Whatever the Germans watch, I can watch. It's always up-to-date, it has all the words and phrases, it's in colour and it moves. Even relative beginners can get something from watching films dubbed, and there are any number of evergreens like Tom and Jerry, The Flintstones and Star Trek. Even Lassie. As pupils, we've no doubt all endured alleged classics with blank incomprehension. But James Bond? Or Mrs Doubtfire?
For A-level candidates, the "must" range includes N-TV, Germany's round-the-clock news programme in the CNN mould. It brings the Germans' view of things in pellucid German with quality in-depth analyses. Presentationally, N-TV is like Spitting Image's version of Kremlin TV, but its reporting takes some beating. Two of its recurrent round-ups, "Teleborse" and "Handelsblatt", are spot on for business German students.
What else? Well, there's a channel dedicated to selling things: folding ladders, jewellery, carving sets, you name it. That is, name it in German. If you can't before you watch, you'll be able to afterwards. And there's a telephone number, too, if you actually want to buy it.
Then there are the travel programmes. Recently, I've been on train rides in Peru and Morocco and been swimming with sharks off the Bahamas; but there are lots of programmes on Germany as well. One way to make German attractive is to highlight Germany's beauty spots, from the Fresian Islands to the Bavarian Alps and all points between. Inner geographers can watch B3's medical magazine Sprechstunde every Tuesday at 7.15 (the slowest and clearest German I've ever heard outside the classroom).
So, Vorsprung durch Technik, from vocabulary-building to cultural comparisons. Germany is so close, I can leave Aachen after breakfast and drive home to Kent for lunch - and Eurostar makes that seem an expedition. Conceptually, however, Germany is the backside of the moon for too many of this country's youngsters. Satellite TV bridges the gap by showing the real Germany of 1996: modern, democratic and European.
The Guardian's Simon Hoggart once wrote that, when Mr Major reports back from Europe, he always sounds as if he were the only one there. Astra redresses the balance.
Dr Colin Butler is senior English master at Borden Grammar School, Sittingbourne, Kent.
You get the best deals if you only want Astra. My equipment (from a Comet sale) cost:
Pace MSS100 (250 channel) Pounds 139.99; Pace 60cm E-dish Pounds 50; Installation Pounds 79.99.
As I write, Comet are also offering a 150-channel Pace Prima and dish at Pounds 49.99 (installation Pounds 49.99). And Currys are offering Pounds 50 chequeback deals on Matsui, Grundig and JVC models, provided you subscribe to Sky (all channels) for 12 months.
Steerable equipment costs more and is best bought from a specialist.
What Satellite TV (Pounds 2.75 pm) carries a good selection of advertisements and updated reviews.
The Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research's Satellite Television In The Classroom is a first-rate vade-mecum for teachers at the planning stage. 20 Bedfordbury, London WC2N 4LB: 0171 379 5101.