Passport to Fluency! 8 Best Language Apps for Travel
Embarking on the trip of a lifetime, studying abroad for college or having a bad case of wanderlust?
There is, as the old folk saying goes, an app for that.
In this post, we’ll detail how to choose a travel app to serve your language needs.
We’ll also look into eight of the most awesome language apps travelers ought to check out and download pronto!
- A Thousand Travel Apps: How to Pick the Right One(s) for You
- Passport to Fluency! The 8 Best Language Apps for Travel
A Thousand Travel Apps: How to Pick the Right One(s) for You
When it comes to traveling, there are many categories of apps: flight apps, hotel apps, weather apps, even currency apps. They all serve a particular purpose and can help make the traveling life a breeze.
In the same way, the language apps that are designed to help you get around your host country where people are speaking a totally different language can serve you in different ways, and you have plenty of choices out there.
So here are a few things to keep in mind when choosing the right app or apps for your travels.
Make sure an app is compatible with your preferred mode of communication.
Different language travel apps have different virtues. A voice translator app, for example, can mediate your conversation with a native speaker. There are apps you can literally ask something in your native language that will then produce an audible translation of your question in the target language. Then a native speaker can answer you in their native tongue by speaking into the phone’s mic, and a few milliseconds later, you’ll know where the nearest train station is!
So that’s all well and good, but you might not be comfortable holding up your phone to a stranger’s face so they can listen to it. Maybe you imagine a more direct communication, without the mediation of a smartphone. Perhaps you should choose an audio phrasebook app that can teach you the most useful phrases in the target language so you can ask the questions yourself.
Or maybe interacting face-to-face with native speakers could prove to be too overwhelming. Maybe you just want an app that will translate written or printed text. There are apps that do this. Simply point your phone’s camera to some printed material or signage and you’ll immediately have the translation.
So consider these different situations, and look for apps appropriate for your preferred mode of communication.
Read user reviews.
Of course developers will tell you their product is the killer app. But take a few minutes to scroll down through the different reviews and you’ll get a peek at how the app actually fares in the field.
Those reviews that give it high ratings tell you why the app rocks. What features were deemed most useful by many of the users? How did it bridge the language gap? Did users rave about an app’s accurate translations? Look for repeating themes and common observations.
If five reviews call it “super fast,” then there must be something there.
Those reviews that give it a low score can warn you of features that users find wanting. Did the translated audio sound robotic? Was the interface confusing?
Also pay attention to what languages previous users have used an app for, as it’s best to choose an app that has a proven reputation for your target language. Not all apps are equally effective for all languages. Because of the inherent qualities of spoken and written languages, an app might work great for European languages but might leave you clueless when it comes to Chinese characters and other writing systems.
Avoid apps that might interfere with your travel experience.
An app should not require you to be so involved that it makes you forget that you’re standing in one of the most beautiful gardens in Europe. A great app facilitates rather than distracts.
Pick an app with a friendly user interface—one that’s easy to navigate. A travel app should get you what you want quickly and let you move along.
Sometimes, an app that has too many options or supports too many languages becomes too much for a traveler. It need not support 200 languages when you know you’ll only be going to Barcelona. It may be fine if it does, but a perk is only a perk if you use it. When it takes too long to hunt for a specific functionality, find something that’s more streamlined but still delivers.
And an additional tip, just so you can fully appreciate your travel experience and maximize an app at the same time: Practice using it starting weeks before you leave.
That thing should be like the back of your hand by the time you board the plane. You should already know what it’s capable of, what its limits are and some shortcuts. You shouldn’t be firing it up for the first time in your destination.
We’ll now look at eleven awesome language apps for travel that deserve some space in your smartphone.
Passport to Fluency! The 8 Best Language Apps for Travel
Android | iOS
Ever had the experience of walking the streets of a foreign city, happening by an interesting store sign and wishing you knew what it meant? Well, say no more, Google’s app will help instantly translate that inscrutable sign. Simply press the camera icon and take a video of what you’re seeing. And just like magic, those words will transform into words that you can understand, right before your very eyes. (Don’t even take your eyes from your phone’s screen because it all happens so fast!)
You can do this with street signs, restaurant menus, food packaging instructions and newspaper headlines. With this app on hand, the world suddenly becomes a more meaningful place. I’m telling you, Harry Potter and Percy Jackson never had it this good.
This functionality comes on top of the app’s text lookup and voice recognition function, with the latter allowing you to carry a conversation with a native speaker.
And oh, the app is free and supports translations for more than 100 languages. (not all features are available for every language, but you can check on what’s available for a specific language here).
Android | iOS
FluentU is an educational mobile app that immerses you in your target language through fun, authentic videos of native speakers in various settings. Each video comes with subtitles that supply you with all the information you need to understand the video, from definitions and sentences to pronunciation guides and related clips.
Sounds great, but what exactly does that have to do with travel, you may ask?
Well, as it turns out, aside from warming up your language skills for your trip, FluentU can help you prepare and plan for the trip itself as well as give you vocab for situations you actually encounter—like ordering in a restaurant in Japan or seeing the sights in Quebec.
You can also use the search bar to find places, activities, food and more. For example, maybe you search for “castles” once you get to Germany and wind up considering a day trip to the Neuschwanstein. Or maybe you’re in Spain so you type in “Alhambra” because that’s where you’re going to be next week.
The best thing about FluentU is that you can work all of your language learning seamlessly into your travels and travel planning. When you happen to be on or off the road (or in the air), you can use that time to practice new words and phrases with handy features like multimedia flashcards and personalized quizzes.
FluentU is currently available for ten major languages, with more in the works.
(How to) Pronounce
Pronunciation is as important as vocabulary and grammar. You don’t want to be like the language learner who memorizes all his lines before a big trip, only to discover that native speakers don’t understand a single word he says. He may be saying the right words, but his intonation, emphasis and diphthongs are all over the place—he might as well have spoken a totally different language.
(How to) Pronounce app to the rescue! Its role is simple enough. You type a word, and you hear it spoken by a native speaker. You get an audio example of how the syllables and the stresses roll off the tongue of someone who’s heard them from birth. You can even vary the speed and listen to the words pronounced in slow mo.
This app is currently available in 18 different languages, with regional differences for English. It’s perfect not just for actors who need to deliver some lines, but if you’re a business traveler who doesn’t want awkward attempts at being understood, or if you want haggle with a seasoned street vendor. You need to show natives that you know what it’s all about. And that starts with pronunciation.
Android | iOS
Say you’re at the airport waiting for your flight. The Memrise app could kill time and make that wait super productive.
It’s an app that integrates the latest in memory research and gets you learning foreign words and phrases. The Memrise method of getting this done is really easy. It repeats the words you’re learning over and over. Simple, right?
But Memrise does this in a non-repetitive and interesting manner.
So let’s say you find yourself working with the Spanish word “muy” (very). The app will first introduce the word and let you pick the English translation from a set of choices. Then maybe later it will give you the English translation and make you pick the other way. Or it may give you an audio clip and ask you to type the word. It can also ask you to say the word into the phone’s mic. All this time, the app is also introducing you to other words.
By using a number of mini-tasks and their permutations, you’re able to slowly integrate the target words into your memory. So by the time you get on the plane and find yourself seated next to a native speaker, you have something to contribute to the conversation other than that gorgeous smile of yours.
Memrise supports over 20 languages.
Android | iOS
The iTranslate app lets you speak in over 100 languages, so that wherever you are in the world, you can soar over language barriers.
This app has voice recognition technology. Speak into your phone, and it will convert your words into text. That text will then be translated into your desired language. So within seconds you get a translation for what you just said. You can then have a native speaker have a look-see or listen to it. (For some of the world’s major languages, you don’t even need an internet connection to enjoy this feature.)
iTranslate can have entire websites translated automatically, which takes away the guesswork in your research. Also, the app contains dictionaries so you can look up words. Heck, they even have verb conjugations for different tenses. It’s like having a complete language cheat sheet for your travels.
Android | iOS
Tandem is best known as a language exchange app. “Language exchange” is when you trade teaching your first language to somebody for them teaching you his/her first language. So for example, you’re an English speaker who wants to learn Korean. The Tandem app helps you find a Korean native speaker who also wants to learn English. By helping each other out, you both get closer to your language learning goals. (The app can help you find native speakers of 150+ different languages.)
You might be wondering why Tandem is included in this list for travelers. It’s because you can also use Tandem to find some friends who reside in the country you’ll be visiting. You can get to know them months in advance, so when you fly in for a visit, some friendly smiles are waiting for you, helping you to get around. There’s nothing like a local to help you immerse in the target language.
Of course, be sure to follow standard safety precautions. Never meet anyone by yourself, and always keep meetings to public places.
Would you like to discover those hidden places and tucked away corners only native speakers know about? This one here is for travelers who want to venture off the beaten path and dive hard into the local scene. The LikeALocal app is a city guide that has been described by the Huffington Post as “the Yelp for tourists.”
If you want to know what native speakers think is the best restaurant in town, if you want insider info on the most happening places in the city or if you just want to find out where the locals love to hang out, this is the perfect app for you. (They’ve curated over 60 cities and counting!)
With no language lessons, no voice recognition technology and no hope of translations, why is this on our list of language apps?
Because it’s an app that puts you right in front of native speakers.
Language learning is about interaction and communication: a shared experience in a local bar, standing in a long queue with native speakers, nonsensically singing along with a local singer and butchering the language along the way. That’s what speaking a language is all about. It’s getting in there with the natives, engaging in the same experiences, immersing yourself in their world and in their language.
This app is for advanced and intrepid language learners and travelers who really want to go deeper into the culture and the language.
Use LikeALocal in conjunction with the other language learning apps mentioned in this list and get ready to take travel and language learning to a whole new level.
Going to China, Japan or Korea? Then the Waygo app is a must have. Other more general translation apps sometimes have trouble when it comes to Asian scripts like those used for Chinese, Japanese and Korean, but this app is actually meant specifically for them.
So when you find yourself looking at text in these languages that you don’t understand, simply point your video camera at them and an instant translation will be given. You’ll hear how the words are pronounced and even be provided with a pronunciation guide. This award-winning app works best on signage, menus and other printed materials.
Best of all, Waygo works offline.
It’s time to pack your things, have a true friend drive you to the airport and fly to the host country of your choice.
Any combo of these language apps will have your back, and you’ll not be at a loss for words.
So have the travel experience of your dreams, and the language learning experience of a lifetime.