When travelling abroad there's no excuse for not learning some of the basic phrases in the language native to your destination, but if you're not conversational or fluent, it shouldn't be a barrier to seeing the places you've always wanted to visit. With a smartphone and a few apps, getting by in a foreign country can be a little easier.
There's no replacement for learning the language of the place you plan to visit, and you should definitely learn as much as you can and not rely on a fancy app to do the job for you, but if you're planning a holiday to Rome, learning Italian in less than a month isn't really possible. Memorise the basics, and try these apps on for size to help with some details:
- Google Translate (iOS/Android) – Most frequent travellers already have Google Translate on their mobile devices, but since the app is available for iOS and Android, there's no excuse not to load it before your flight takes off.
Google Translate will automatically determine the language being typed or spoken, and will translate it to your native language or any other language you select. You can use it to translate your speech into someone else's language or vice versa, and star or favourite your favourite translations to come back to them later. The app is probably the closest thing to a universal translator easily available today.
- Speaklip (Android) – Speaklip is another app that will do translations on the fly for you and speak the translated terms aloud. You can't speak to Speaklip though, which is unfortunate, but Speaklip has the bonus of being a clipboard manager for your Android phone, meaning you can instantly translate any words or phrases you highlight on your phone or that you type in.
There's no limit to the number of words you can paste into Speaklip, and the app will speak the translated phrase aloud to you when the translation is finished. Since Speaklip runs in the background to manage your clipboard, you can get to it quickly. Plus, the app lets you use your Android phone's hardware buttons to quickly paste text.
- Talking Phrasebooks (iOS/Android) – Depending on where you plan to go, there's likely a Talking Phrasebook app to help you with those common phrases you may have forgotten to commit to memory. Commonly needed phrases like "I need to find the embassy" and "Can you call me a taxi?" are included, so it's a bit more comprehensive than "Which way to the bathroom."
The apps have come a long way since we last mentioned them, branching into several new languages. All of the official ones are available for iOS, Samsung Bada or Nokia OVI devices, and will set you back less than a dollar. There are unofficial phrasebooks for Android for many of the same languages, although they're from different developers. Your mileage there may vary.
With apps like Word Lens out there, using your mobile phone to help you get around a foreign land when you don't know the language is easier than ever. Granted, WordLens is great (and we really wish it supported more languages) but there are other tools available now for more devices that can help you get directions or find you way to a local landmark when speaking to someone who doesn't speak your language.