One of the hardest parts about traveling is the language barrier. As English speakers, we’re incredibly lucky that so many people around the world can communicate with us, but we can’t assume that knowing English will be enough. Luckily, there are a bunch of smartphone apps that make bridging the language gap a little bit easier.
Picking the right one, however, isn’t quite so easy. Different apps cater to different needs, and if you don’t know what to look for, you could end up trying a dozen before finding the right one. In this guide, we’ll go over the factors you should consider when choosing the app for you. At the end, we’ve also got a list of our favorites to help you get started on your search.
How to Choose a Language App for Travel – Buying Guide
When choosing an app, don’t forget that having a ton of extra features doesn’t necessarily make it the best choice for you. Always consider what you need first.
Ensure Your Target Language Is Supported
This should go without saying, but the first thing you should do is check to see if the app you want to use supports the language of the country you’re visiting. That being said, it might be good to double check exactly what the country’s main language is and also the language of the specific region you’re visiting.
Remember, Brazil speaks Portuguese and not Spanish, and even though Mandarin is used throughout China, in different places you might find that you need to use other dialects like Cantonese or Hokkien.
Pick a Type Based on Your Situation, Confidence, and Time to Prepare
There are three main types of language apps for travel: translation, phrasebook, and learning apps. Which one will be best for you depends largely on your travel style, so think realistically about the situations you might be in.
Translation Apps Are the Fastest and Most Convenient
For on-the-go translation that doesn’t require a lot of know-how, translation apps are your best bet. They allow you to easily move between two languages without any real prior knowledge. Some translation apps work with written input where you type in one language and it’ll come out in another.
Others can also handle spoken input, which will allow you to translate conversations in almost real-time. Translation apps are great not just for your typical travel phrases but also for situations that might come up involving speech that other travel-related language apps aren’t prepared for.
Just note that if you have an app that produces written output but the literacy rate in the country you’re visiting is low, you might still need to read it aloud to the other person. So if it’s an alphabet that you’re not familiar with, be sure that the app also provides you with a transliteration that you can read.
Phrasebook Apps Give You the Need-to-Knows and Make You Look Like You’re Trying
Like the travel phrasebooks of old, phrasebook apps provide you with a number of words, phrases, and sentences that you’re likely to use when traveling. Phrase apps are great if you’ll only need a fairly limited vocabulary and want to try your hand at speaking the local language. In many places, locals are thrilled to hear tourists trying, even if it’s just “thank you” or “where is the restroom?”
For the best phrase app possible, look for one that splits phrases into categories or has a search function so that you can quickly and easily find what you’re looking for. It’s also really helpful if the app has audio so that you know how the phrases are pronounced.
Learning Apps Take Some Time but Help You Talk with Locals
If you’re intent on making friends and communicating with the local community, it’s best to learn a little more about the language and grammar aside from just direct translations and travel words.
Naturally, this can take several weeks or months of preparation, but it can be worth it if you’ll be visiting for more than a couple weeks or traveling solo. Just be sure that the app that you choose is practical and focuses on speaking.
Can’t Read the Writing? Look for Apps That Use Photo Readers or AR
If you’re visiting a country that uses the same alphabet English does, it’s easy enough to do a quick search for unfamiliar words. But if the alphabet is completely different, and you have no idea how to even pronounce the word, let alone type it, it really helps to have an app that can translate without that extra step.
Luckily, there are several apps that allow you to either take a picture of the writing or just hold your phone up to it, and it’ll tell you what it means. One of the places that you’ll likely need this the most is restaurants, but it’s important to note that food translations often don’t make sense and may not tell you exactly what’s in the dish.
So if you have allergies or restrictions, it’s always best to ask directly (via a translation app or predetermined phrase).
If You Don’t Have Data, Offline Availability Is Critical
Depending on whether you’ve decided to pay for international roaming or rent a portable wifi router or foreign SIM card, you may or may not have reliable data throughout your trip. Even if you have, there will still likely be times where coverage is spotty.
If you want to be able to communicate (relatively) effectively even without internet, it’s important that the app you’re using has offline availability that allows you to download everything you need ahead of time.
Top 10 Best Language Apps for Travel to Find Online
Now that you know what to look for, here are a few of our favorites. Some of these combine two or more different types and make useful all-in-one resources.
Price: Free trial ($2.99-$6.99 per full language pack)
Translate Asian Menus with Photos
If you’re traveling in East Asia, this app could be a lifesaver. Waygo specializes in translating menus and signs, which are two places general translation apps sometimes have trouble with. It even has pictures of menu items for Chinese translations.
However, reviewers note that the app sometimes has trouble focusing the camera and recognizing text, and if the free trial doesn’t fully work on your phone, it probably isn’t going to work with the upgrade either.
|Languages||Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean|
Price: Free ($1.99/month for Pro membership, $4.99/month for VIP membership)
Language Exchange with Powerful Learning Tools
HelloTalk allows you to connect with other people around the world to improve your language skills. The chat interface features powerful tools such as grammar correction, text to voice, and transliteration.
On top of that, this app also provides free audio and video calling so that you can better practice speaking and listening. Any language that a user speaks is fair game, and with 10 million users, you’re bound to find your target language.
8. Speak & Translate
Price: Free with limitations ($3.99/month for full features)
Instant Speech and Text Translator
As its name suggests, this app allows you to speak and translate, giving you instant speech to speech, text to text, and speech to text translation, which makes it ideal for almost any situation.
However, offline functionality is only available for 10 languages if you have a subscription. If you choose to use the free version, you’ll face a daily translation limit and have to deal with pop-ups prompting you to upgrade.
|Languages||117 (text), 54 (speech)|
|Offline Availability||Yes, for 10 languages with subscription|
7. iTranslate Translator
Price: Free ($4.99/month or $39.99/year for premium features)
Sleek, Premium Translation App
This app is one of the best tools for quick, on-the-go translations. It translates both voice and text, accommodates different dialects within each language, and has a phrasebook with 250 useful predefined phrases. Plus, it looks good.
With the pro version, you get a photo reader, offline availability, and verb conjugations that lets you see different tenses. However, depending on your needs, the cost may not be worth it for some as there are other apps that have similar functions.
|Photo Reader||Yes, with subscription|
|Offline Availability||Yes, with subscription|
Price: Free ($9.99/month for premium features)
For Effective, Long-Term Language Learning
Busuu is a language learning app that uses personalized study plans, speech recognition, and feedback from native speakers to help you learn a new language in the most natural, useful way possible.
There’s even a specific course that focuses on learning language geared towards travel. Using Busuu should be a long-term thing, and the app makes it easy by offering goal setting and progress tracking to keep you motivated.
|Languages||Spanish, German, French, Italian, English, Russia, Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, Brazilian Portuguese, Arabic, and Polish|
5. SayHi Translate
Simple Speech-Focused Translation
This user-friendly app is built for instant speech to speech translation. Simply choose your input and output languages, speak into the microphone, edit the transcription (if necessary), and listen to your translated speech.
To give it a personal touch, the app even allows you to choose between a male and female voice as well as speed. As a speech-focused app, it also offers many spoken only dialects of various languages.
4. Microsoft Translator
Conversation-Focused Translation App
This handy translation tool offers text and speech translation, photo text translation, and an intuitive interface that makes it easy to have a live bilingual conversation.
On top of that, this app also lets you to look up alternate translations, includes a useful phrasebook, and allows you to connect devices with up to 100 different people to have live multi-lingual conversations.
3. Google Translate
Accurate, Multi-Input Translator
Google Translate is probably one of the most accurate multi-lingual translation tools available, and it’s free. It offers text translation for over 100 languages and even supports handwriting input that allows you to draw characters instead of type.
You can download 60 languages for offline use and star translations for later, making this a great tool for travel. Do note, however, that Google apps don’t work in China, so if you’re visiting China, you’ll have to use a different app.
|Offline Availability||Yes, for 59 languages|
Price: Free ($15.99/month for each language or $29.99/3 months, $49.99/6 months, $84.99/year)
Conversation-First Learning App for Your Trip to Europe
Babbel is a language learning app that focuses on practical situations in 10-15 minute lessons. It features pronunciation guides from native speakers to help you feel confident speaking before you even get to your destination.
Unlike other apps, it’s conversation-focused and doesn’t worry much about reading or vocabulary drills. However, it is still very Europe-centered, though they are continually adding new languages.
|Languages||Spanish, French, German, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Turkish, Polish, English, Indonesian, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian|
Price: Free ($19.99/month membership, or $39.99/3 months)
All-in-One Travel and Language Assistant
What can’t this app do? On the language side, it offers translations in various levels of formality, photo translations, pronunciation guides, and a robust 2000+ entry phrasebook spanning topics like directions, compliments, and bargaining.
On top of that, it has information on 100+ countries that includes things like culture notes, currency conversion, and emergency numbers. There’s even a built-in wifi caller that allows you to call any phone regardless of your own phone plan’s limitations.
|Type||Translation, phrases, learning|
|Offline Availability||Yes, limited functionality|
In the end, the best app is one that you’ll actually use. So explore any free trials thoroughly and think about the situations you might be in before making a commitment to a subscription.
By Jacqueline Oshiro
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