Foreign Language Smart Phone Apps for Your Vacation Abroad


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Giacomo Gambineri

You’re going on vacation to a place where you don’t know the language, and English isn’t widely spoken. Sure, you’ve learned how to say “hello” and “where’s the bathroom?,” but beyond that you’re clueless and your flight is tomorrow. What to do?

Gone are the days when tourists wander around clutching guidebooks with an index of handy phrases. Today there are more convenient ways to facilitate communication. This is not a comprehensive list of the copious digital language tools available; rather, these are two go-to options I’m using right now. Consider it a cheat sheet for when you touch down in a city and are at a loss for words.

Bravolol

One of the easiest (and cheapest) things to do is to download one of Bravolol’s phrase book apps, available in more than a dozen languages including Chinese, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Russian and Arabic. Each app comes with several free categories of useful phrases and essential words such as “greetings” (with remarks like “Good morning”); “shopping” (“May I try it on?” as well as words for different kinds of clothing); “eating” (“I’d like a table in a nonsmoking area” along with words for types of food); and “emergency” (“Call the police”).

Also free is the “romance” category, to which one can quickly refer if moved to say, “Can I buy you a drink?” in Italian or French or, perhaps more important, “I’m not interested.” A “favorites” category stores any phrases you star (by clicking an icon next to each one) so you can swiftly call them all up in one place.

Each English phrase is shown in the foreign language and, in the case of a language such as Japanese, as a transliteration as well. And all of the categories are on a white background and are identified with a simple font as well as colorful graphics, which makes it easy to find the one you need when you’re about to walk into a restaurant or a boutique. There’s even an “extra-large” setting for the phrase and vocabulary fonts so you don’t have to reach for reading glasses.

But what makes these digital phrasebooks stand out among language apps is that when you tap a phrase, the app speaks it aloud. There’s no guessing as to how to pronounce the words. And if the app is talking too quickly for you, simply tap the turtle icon to hear the words more slowly (you can also adjust this in “settings”). Ideally you listen to the phrase and repeat it, but if your accent is terrible, you can play the voice on the app to, for instance, a waiter or store clerk. (If you don’t want the app to talk, you can turn off that feature in “settings.”)

For additional phrase categories such as “numbers,” “weather,” “directions” and “sightseeing,” you can upgrade to the paid version of the app for $4.99, or opt to see ads for a free trial of the app’s complete offerings.

Bravolol also makes language bilingual dictionary apps ($2.99 for an ad-free version), including English and Arabic, English and Greek, and English and Korean. Type into the search bar a word or phrase (in English or in your chosen foreign language) and the app will show you the word or words in the other language. Tap the listen icon beside a word and the app will pronounce it for you. And here, too, you can star favorite words and keep them in a single folder. But Bravolol’s phrase book apps are more useful if you’re on vacation and just need the basics at your fingertips.

Google Translate

My other in-the-moment communication tool is Google Translate, which is free and can be used in a few ways. (Note: Try it out before you’re at happy hour in Lagos, as this app is a little more complicated.)

One way to use the app is to tap the camera icon, then hold your smartphone’s camera lens up to the words you want translated on, say, a street sign or a menu. In seconds the instant translation feature transforms the words on the sign into your desired language, virtual-reality style. This feature has supported seven languages for quite some time, but last week Google added 20 more, for a total of 27, including Bulgarian, Dutch and Swedish.

I don’t recommend using the camera option to read your horoscope in Vogue Japan, however, as I did on a recent trip there. Long blocks of tiny text have not been the app’s strong suit, as others before me have written. My horoscope included lines such as, “Oh to communicate flexibility phrases that and be able to let wearing the courage…” It works very well with street signs or a word or two of large text, like “daily specials.” Yet that said, you may not want to bother fishing for your phone while standing on a street corner in the rain.

Happily, the app is helpful in other ways. Say you’re asking for directions. You can speak, type or draw characters on your smartphone screen with your finger whatever it is you want translated. Then up pops what you just said or wrote in the other language (along with a transliteration if relevant) and an icon that you can tap to have the words spoken aloud in the foreign language. There’s also a nifty icon (a square with only its corners outlined) that allows you to make the translation fill your entire smartphone screen. Star a translation such as “Where is the bathroom?” by tapping the icon beside it, and it will be saved to a “starred” folder for easy access the next time you need it.

Once you begin this process — writing or speaking in your native tongue and then seeing and hearing the translation — you have a few options. For instance, you can show the text translation on your smartphone to whomever you’re trying to speak with. Or you can let them listen to the audio translation. From there you can continue a conversation, either in writing or by talking into the phone. The app can listen for whichever language is being spoken and then translate as you converse.

To use the app in the moment with the least amount of fiddling, set it up ahead of time. This involves a few taps to select the two languages you’ll be using and the direction you think you’ll begin typing or speaking (for example, English to Italian).

In the end, there’s no substitute for learning a language, or some vocabulary, in advance of a trip. Even knowing five words — “hello,” “thank you,” “please,” “sorry,” “goodbye” — shows locals that you’re making an effort. And they will be all the more willing to help you. No matter how short your flight, you certainly have time for that.



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