I was in my early twenties when I packed my bags to go traveling around the world for the first time. As I write this, I’m in my early thirties. Things were different then- Western European currencies were worth twice as much as they are now, low-cost airlines were still in their infancy and the members of One Direction were still forbidden by their parents to cross the big road without an adult. From all the change that has occurred over the last ten years or so, it’s the way we communicate when we’re abroad that has really stood out to me.
Just before my big trip my sister gave me a small pack of cards that I was to take with me wherever I went. These weren’t playing cards, however, but rather descriptive images that could be used as a way of communicating in countries where I wasn’t familiar with the language (all of them). A simple picture of a toilet and a question mark allowed me to answer to nature’s call in the depths of Thailand, while a cooked chicken, lamb chop and a pork sausage with a big red cross through them let the staff in a Malaysian street restaurant know that I was after something vegetarian that evening.
Great advances in technology, the introduction of smartphones and light, powerful tablets along with the ever-increasing number of mobile apps has, quite simply, rendered my pack of cards obsolete. So, putting my nostalgia aside, I’m embracing the now and would like to share my Top 5 language barrier-busting apps currently on the market:
1) Word Lens
This is a clever little app that translates text in realtime. Simply point your smartphone at the text you want to translate (be it a menu, a road sign or a note left by your hotel cleaner) and the app uses augmented reality technology to translate the text in front of your very eyes.
Generally speaking, being a tourist in a country and not speaking the language doesn’t cause too much of a problem. We find we can get by with a few hand signals, talking a little louder than usual (this, by the way, doesn’t help) and using the few phrases we learnt on the plane. Sometimes, however, we need to be a bit more sure that what we are saying is being understood (reporting a crime in a police station, for example). This app is great for that, as you can say something into the app in your native language, check that the app has understood it correctly and then translate it to the language of your choice. It’s not quite realtime conversation, but at least gives you the assurance that what is being said is accurate.
Translation alone is not always enough but we can’t very well learn a new language every time we visit a new country, can we? English is by far the most spoken language in the backpacking world and if you’re going to learn a language that helps you travel, it should be English. This app is unique as it gives you exposure to over 10 native British accents, spread over 50-plus English conversation topics. It has 2 levels; level one teaches you basic vocabulary and grammar structures while level two steps things up a bit with 100% native speech, including complex grammar, vocabulary and idiomatic expressions. It features lots of useful content for your traveling needs.
We’ve talked a bit about how the need of accurate translation sometimes calls for something more than a computerised translation service when traveling and this app takes that idea to the next level. If, for example, you are traveling for work and are trying to close an important deal, this nifty app can help. You can buy translation credits, which allow you to call a real person who can translate whatever it is you need translated. Think of it as a kind of Skype, dedicated to calling native translators.
No, not the shoes but rather an iPad-only realtime translator for when you’re faced with not having a clue what the person opposite you is saying. Imagine you are talking to someone over a burger in a restaurant, but you each speak a different language. The app features a clever split screen keyboard function that allows each person on each side of the table to type in their native language and see the other person’s reply fully translated. Just don’t get ketchup on your iPad!
About the author:
Sançar Sahin is an English teacher, avid traveler and creator of iStudyEnglishOnline, a site for learning English.