Whether you’re a professional translator, an enthusiastic amateur linguist, or someone who needs to learn some quick phrases to use when travelling abroad, you’re sure to appreciate how technology has come on leaps and bounds in recent years to help us learn languages and develop our multi-lingual skills.
With mobile phone apps and free online tools there are lots of ways to learn a new language and make sure you’re better understood on foreign travels.
Google Translate is one of the first ports of call for anyone wanting a quick word or phrase translating for them. It’s free to use and covers all the main world languages, allowing for quick translations when you are in a hurry. Utilising the international data that Google has built up over the years, it now features a voice version of the translated text, which is incredibly useful if you’re still getting to grips with pronunciation.
To be warned though, it can spit out some strange results, often translating too literally, although the way it translates as you type in a sentence is a neat feature (you can sometimes see translated words being changed to reflect the overall context of the sentence as you key the words in). As a mechanised translation tool, it’s still pretty impressive despite its faults, but it’s worth translating phrases back into the original language to check the results before you use them. Top tip, whatever translation tool you are using, it’s helpful to use an Images search to see if the translated word really does seem to mean what you want it to.
A mobile version of Google Translate has been developed for Android and Apple phones. Similar apps include Babelphone and the iPhone translation apps.
There are a number of effective phrasebook applications for mobiles and tablets, designed for travel, they cover the most likely phrases you will use and can help you with the basics of a new language.
One of the best phrasebook apps is the one from Lonely Planet, compiled over the years from the company’s experience in publishing the popular tourist guides. It’s easy to use, with the phrases sorted in the familiar categories of Sight-seeing, Accommodation etc. just as you see in the guide books. And this is much better than carrying around a hard-copy, as there is the added advantage of over 600 spoken phrases to listen to, so you can get your pronunciation right – this a huge help if you are trying to speak a language with a different character set.
Similarly World Nomads offer over 200 popular spoken words and phrases in 25 languages within their free application, along with a podcast about learning languages and if you pay $1.99 extra you can get as many as 550 phrases.
Rosetta Stone is one of the biggest language learning companies in the world and they have developed (at the time of writing) fifteen different language applications for iPhone, Blackberry and Android.
They allow you to take learning at your own pace, teaching you useful words & phrases to get you safely through a holiday or business trip, or as the first step in learning a new language in depth. Even better, they offer a money back guarantee if you’re not happy with the results.
Of course, you can always learn a language the old-fashioned way, such as attending an evening class – there’s nothing like real-life conversations to help you pick up the essentials. And you can find language courses in all the world languages to play via MP3 or DVD. Give yourself a kick-start by playing the tapes as you sleep; scientists say it actually can help you learn, despite that sounding like an urban myth.
Texting and emailing in different languages
Email translator, which you’ve probably worked out, translates email text without you having to copy and paste into another programme. This is especially useful if you work for an international company where messages come in using a variety of languages.
ProTranslateLite allows you quickly translate words that have been received by text, email, or even Tweets – a tool that is excellent for anyone with friends who speak different languages.
Fun stuff (things to help you out when you’re getting desperate)
iLingual makes those awkward moments when you stop a stranger for directions and they can’t understand a word you’re saying a lot more fun.
It’s a gimmick that actually works! Basically, you take a picture of your mouth, choose from a set of words of phrases and the language you want to speak in and the phone does the talking for you, with an animated version of your mouth speaking in the foreign language. In tests it was found that people responded very well to the app, but don’t expect it to translate the answer you get into something you will understand.
A voice translation service that works very well is Jibbigo, it’s not cheap at $24.99, but if you’re spending time with someone without a language in common, you’ll be impressed by how it helps you to have conversations.
Very simply, you speak in English and the app will translate your phrase into the language of your choice, with your friend’s replies being translated back to you through the same device.
Voice commands can lead to some dubious misunderstandings (just ask anyone who has had a conversation with Siri), but as long as you speak slowly and clearly, Jibbigo will often provide good translations. Even better, you don’t need to be connected to the web, or your network, to use this app. So you can sit in quiet corner of an underground bar and understand your new friends without worrying about incurring network costs, or having to wave your phone around to get a signal.