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The Tower of Babel available on your PC;Modern languages

Pupils can now conduct research for different subjects in a foreign tongue - thanks to a computer encyclopedia. Dorothy Walker reports.

It is 10 o'clock in a classroom in rural Berkshire and it's time for today's challenge. The task: prepare to discuss the pros and cons of genetic engineering - and be prepared to do it in Spanish.

Where do you turn for help? For students of modern languages at The Willink School, the answer is to sit down at the computer and consult the electronic pages of Enciclopedia Encarta. The familiar-looking software is indeed Encarta, Microsoft's multimedia encyclopaedia. But this version is aimed at native Spanish speakers.

For those who have followed the incredible growth of Encarta in Britain, the intriguing news is that we may be seeing even more of Bill Gates' brainchild here in future. As well as our own version, Encarta comes in nine other languages, ranging from German to Japanese. Each is tailor-made for its home market by a native editorial team. And some copies are now making their debut in British schools.

At The Willink School, near Reading, pupils are currently putting the French, German, Italian and Spanish editions through their paces. Everyone studies at least two of the languages here, and Japanese is also on offer in the sixth form. A comprehensive with specialist school status, Willink has run a language college since 1996 and prides itself on devising imaginative ideas to stimulate enthusiasm for foreign languages, well beyond the confines of the language lab.

At Willink, pupils may find themselves taking part in a whole-school assembly conducted entirely in Italian - enjoyed even by those with not so much as a Ciao in their vocabulary - or chatting to a visiting German assistant in Turkish, "just for fun".

But even here in this school, where generous sponsorship has provided a well-stocked modern languages media centre and library, teachers face the classic problem: a dearth of up-to-date reference material that's pitched at the right level - and the right price - for schools.

Wendy Rumbol, Willink's head of languages, says that Encarta has a head start as a resource. Not only does it provide a welcome change of pace from leafing through dictionaries and vocabulary primers, but most pupils, armed with at least a passing acquaintance with the English version, know how the software works. "I was watching a student use the Spanish version for the first time the other day, and he automatically knew his way around the screens," she says.

Peter McLaren in Form 12 is using Encarta to prepare for French and Spanish A-levels - and that includes being ready to discuss the latest scientific developments with confidence. "It is a very good resource," he says. "You find information that isn't in books. We are doing cloning in Spanish, and it's helpful to have information in the language.

"Some of the words in there are really quite hard, but that's good because it is challenging. You are translating and getting to know the subject, so you feel you have made real progress."

He says that multimedia computers can prove useful as well as entertaining. Whether you're reading about the rain in Spain or street riots in Paris, having a video and soundtrack can help compensate for gaps in vocabulary.

Unlike many of his generation, Peter, who plans a career as a translator, has resisted the temptation simply to copy chunks of Encarta and attempt to pass the work off as his own - a technique that must be especially appealing when you are working in a foreign language.

"You learn more if you put it into your own words," he says. "There is no point in copying, because the teachers know - even if you read some of the English Encarta, it is more complex than you would write yourself."

At GCSE and beyond, the encyclopedia has helped pupils research coursework topics ranging from global warming to Nazi literature, while Wendy Rumbol and her colleagues have saved precious hours that otherwise would have been spent trawling the Internet for up-to-date facts and figures.

Satellite television, piped into every classroom, provides the impetus for delving deeper into current affairs. Wendy says: "We might look at today's headlines, or the weather forecast for a particular country, and then go and find out more about the background in Encarta. "It doesn't matter how small the idea is, if it makes life more interesting for the pupils when they are learning."

But she believes it will be harder to introduce the encyclopedia in the lower years. "At first the younger children will say: 'I don't understand all these words.' If it is cleverly handled, however, I think they will learn quite a lot from it.

"Every school library should have a copy in each of the languages they teach. Occasionally, it would even be nice if all teachers would say: 'Why don't you try looking at this subject in anotherlanguage?' " Foreign language versions of Microsoft titles are available from education suppliers and Computer Warehouse (tel: 0181 400 1234). Same prices as English. Encarta pound;49.99, Deluxe Encarta (pound;79.99), Reference Suite (pound;99.99) Foreign thinking: at Willink school, satellite television broadcasts overseas current affairs in many tongues. Pupils can research topics in their specialist languages?


* Microsoft stand D30 0870 6010100

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