Did you hear that?
There it is again.
Because today, we’re looking at a piece of language learning technology so cool, it makes “Star Trek” look silly: Photo translator apps.
They will forever change how you go about learning a language.
So what exactly are photo translator apps, anyway? What can you use them for? And which are the best ones on the market? That’s what we’re about to find out.
What’s a Photo Translator App and What Does It Do?
Let’s say you and your Italian-speaking friend, Alessandro, are walking around Little Italy in New York. You find a cute souvenir shop and decide to step in for a look. There are postcards, pizza-making implements and figurines that remind you of the Super Mario Brothers.
Then you see, spread on the walls, colorful face towels—each embroidered with different Italian words. You squint at one and see, “Sorridere.”
Intrigued, you ask your friend, “Bro, what does ‘sow-rhy-dey-ree’ mean?”
“Oh, that. That’s ‘smile’ in Italian.”
And then you guys leave, because you’re only killing time, and not your monthly budget.
Two days later, you message Alessandro and ask him what “Come sempre” means. You’re trying to learn the chords to an Italian song but are too lazy to Google what the title means. Your friend quickly tells you that it means “as always” in Italian.
Well, a photo translator app is like Alessandro—except the app won’t have beers with you or split cab fare.
A photo translator app instantly translates any text that you take a photo of.
See storefront signage and have no idea what it means? Point your phone’s camera at it… and the wizard in the app automatically translates the word(s) for you.
So you might be looking at your phone’s screen and see the English word “Open,” while in the real world, the sign actually says, “Abierto.”
With some apps, it even happens in real time. Magic!
The great thing about photo translator apps is that you don’t even have to pronounce the words before receiving the translation. You don’t have to type them in, either. There’s a time and a place for that, but the time and place might not be while you’re out and about in Little Italy. So whip out your phone and let the translator do its job.
Photo translator apps come in handy for when:
- You’re about to get something tattooed on your bicep, and you don’t want the Chinese word for “soup” to forever mar the temple that is your body. Simply point your camera to the Chinese character the tattoo artist shows you and make sure that it really means “courage.”
- You’re on a date in an expensive French restaurant, so chic that they didn’t even bother with English on their menus. So you hide behind those giant foldables and whip out your phone and impress your date. Because, hey, she deserves to know what she’s eating.
- You’re driving your rental in Italy and see a perfectly good spot to park. But nearby is a sign that says, “Passo carrabile.” Nobody was around to tell you that this indicates there’s definitely no parking and that your rental just might be towed.
So photo translators, as it turns out, are handy for those in a foreign country (or a fancy restaurant, or a tattoo parlor) who need translation in a snap. The app definitely helps people get around with ease and class.
But what about language learners who aren’t just using one of these apps for a two-week overseas getaway? What can they get out of them?
How Can Language Learners Use Photo Translator Apps?
FluentU can provide you with all the information you need to navigate its handpicked online content: FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons. We give you interactive captions with instant definitions and memorable images for each video, so you’re never left flailing.
However, we unfortunately can’t give you interactive captions for the entire world. That’s where photo translator apps have a unique role to play. Here are a few ways you can use them to enhance your real-world learning experience.
- As aids for studying authentic written material.
“Authentic material” refers to any material dedicated to native speakers. This includes newspapers, books, comics, greeting cards, posters, etc. that come in the target language.
Let’s say you’re learning German. You have a bunch of clipped news articles in German and you plan to study them closely. You can use the app to have those titles translated so you don’t have to go to the trouble of typing German words into the Google search bar.
Having photo translators will make your time with authentic content more productive. With a photo translator app in hand, you won’t feel so much like a fish out of water.
- As fun vocabulary games.
Photo translators are a huge deal when it comes to learning vocabulary. As long as you can make a game out of learning, then there’s no limit as to the use of these apps.
For example, you might label the different objects around your house with sticky notes. So on a book, you’ll write “book.” Then, try to guess, for example, the objects’ Spanish translations, saying that translation out loud before looking into your photo translator.
So your app becomes like a digital flashcard where you flip the card to see if your answer was right. But in this case, you have the richness of context that helps you remember the vocabulary because you have actual objects in front of you. It’s not just the word “book” or “cup,” you’re actually holding the objects and imprinting the relationships in your memory.
- As aids for translation exercises.
A paper and pen, when paired with a photo translator, become a powerful learning experience.
For example, you might come up with a list of 20 of your favorite movies. So maybe you’ll have titles like “The Mask,” “Animal House,” “Young Frankenstein,” “The Hangover,” etc. And then, you can either use the translator to render each of these titles in your target language, or try your best to translate them yourself… and only later use the app to check your work.
Either way, your linguistic muscles benefit from the exercise. You get to work with the language, and in a meaningful way. Because this isn’t just a random list that somebody else made, but something very personal and context-laden for you.
You can create other types of lists. Say, your favorite adjectives for people who you find attractive. Or a list of words that can be associated with the phrase “My Perfect Date.” So maybe you’ll have “candle,” “dinner,” “beach” and “swim” in your list. And then you get to work on that list, using your photo translator. You can work forwards and backwards, going from English to the target language and vice versa.
- By using the other features of the apps.
I haven’t mentioned it yet, but photo translators rarely come alone. Any photo translator app will most likely have other nifty capabilities—like translating speech-to-text or text-to-speech. These features were likely developed first, with the photo translator being built on the more basic parts of the app.
So when you’ve installed the apps that we’re going to mention next, don’t just tinker with them as photo translators. They’re perfectly capable of doing old school translations, too.
So yes, they may be cooler than “Star Trek,” but they can also take care of your translation basics.
5 Photo Translator Apps That Are Magic for Language Learners
Overall, Google Translate is at the top of its class, having top-notch inter-language capabilities. The app currently recognizes 38 languages for instant camera work.
You’ll have the option of pointing your camera at any text or written material in the real world. A guide box will make sure that your target word(s), phrases or sentence are in the translation zone. If lighting conditions are not ideal, you’ll also have the light/flash option available.
Actually, Google Translate works so fast that even before you’ve centered your target on the screen, the app has already done its job and translated it. (I know!)
If that’s too fast for you, you can turn off the instant translation. When you turn instant translation off, you’ll have to click the camera button like when you’re taking a picture before the app gets to work on your translations.
Like I said, Google Translate is not just a photo translator. It’s also, in fact, many translators in one. It can be a text translator where you type and have your text translated into 103 languages. And if you download the specific language pack, you don’t even need an internet connection for that to happen.
It’s also a voice translator. You can actually talk to your phone in one language and the app will spit out translated audio of what you just said. And just so you don’t miss it, the app writes your speech and the translation into text so you can follow along.
Get Google Translate today and have your world translated.
Microsoft Translator is very similar to Google Translate, except it doesn’t have instant photo translations. Whereas Google automatically gives you the translation once the target word is seen by the camera, for Microsoft Translator, you need to actually push the button and take a picture before the app processes your request. But unlike Google, which defaults to vertical phone orientation only, this one can have both vertical and horizontal alignments. So if you have a longer text to translate, you can go horizontal before snapping the pic.
And make no mistake, this app is also not just a photo translator. It can translate voice and text. It can do that for over 60 languages. You can even have a bilingual conversation where two people literally place a phone between them and take turns speaking. In this scenario, the screen will be divided into halves. Each will have their own mic icon. To speak, each person has to press and hold the mic. The app will translate what was said into the language of the other person, both in text and audio. Cool!
Although the developers highlight its “voice” and dictionary elements more prominently, iTranslate does have photo translator capabilities for the pro version of its app.
This feature is called iTranslate Lens. It’s still a point-snap-and-translate operation, but the cool thing about Lens is that you can actually manipulate the size of your translation box and move it around. You can expand or shrink it so that whatever text is found inside your box gets converted. Unlike the first two apps where the guide box is nailed in the dead center of your screen, you can actually drag this one around. And, when your translation is done, you have the option of viewing the results in full screen, for an unobstructed view. Awesome!
The feature supports 43 languages.
iTranslate Lens is, however, included in the “pro” version. So if you want to translate street signs, menus or cards via iTranslate, you’re going to have to fork over $4.99 for the monthly subscription. Voice translation and offline capabilities also come with the paid subscription.
The free version, though, is an excellent text translator, offering not just definitions and synonyms for words, but also verb conjugations for different tenses—resulting in a richer insight into the target language.
The next two apps have been specifically developed to deal with the complexities of East Asian languages—Korean, Chinese and Japanese. These languages don’t use the Roman “ABCs” but instead have systems of writing unique from most others.
Papago, in fact, was developed by Naver, a Korean search engine that’s presenting a furious challenge to the hegemony of Google and its translation app. Where Google Translate falls short, Papago thinks it can do better.
The Papago photo translator interface is very similar to the ones we already discussed. Like Microsoft Translate, you can orient your phone either vertically or horizontally. And like it or not, you have to snap the picture in order to send your query.
Papago, however, solves the problem of targeting by allowing you to further manually highlight, with your finger, which word or words you want translated. So what happens is, after you snap a picture, let’s say of a paragraph of words, Papago will allow you to zoom into the picture and let you highlight the specific words that you actually want translated.
Waygo’s developers are very honest from the get-go—admitting that the photo translator works best for large signs and print, but not so much for books, stylized text or when things are written with unusual fonts.
However, this is probably the best app to use for when you want to understand Mandarin, Korean or Japanese menus. And this will work wherever you go—no internet connection required. So wherever your food adventure takes you, you’re assured of knowing what’s being served.
The free version allows you to have 10 free photo translations daily, but an upgrade for $6.99 (per language) gives you the chance to go bonkers in Chinatown or Koreatown.
So go right ahead, download these apps.
They will forever change how you see language learning.
You just happen to live in a time when all your excuses for not picking up a second language get flushed to oblivion.
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