As native English speakers, we are fortunate to have been born into a language which is as widely spoken as any across the world. Step into pretty much any capital city, and you’ll stand a reasonable chance of being able to survive without ever having to even consider speaking a word of the local language.
However, our view is that this puts immense restrictions on what you can get out of your travels. Even a few basic words and phrases can go a long way to opening doors, whilst at the same time showing respect to the history and culture of the area you’re visiting. Thankfully, these days there’s really no excuse for the old ‘point and speak loudly’ method – smartphones have revolutionised language learning, with literally thousands of apps out there vying for your attention.
We tend to stick to a few reliable favourites, which have proven invaluable during our travels and helped us try out hand at everything from Russian to Arabic, and Georgian to Portuguese – with varying levels of successful execution! Here is a list of our top 6 apps for language learning on your travels. These are perfect for one off trips, where a helping hand or some freshly memorised phrases can go a long way. If you’re hoping to become fluent in a language, some of these apps are a great start – but our caveat is always that there’s no substitute for actually conversing with a native speaker and living the language day in, day out!
Great for: Fitting language learning in around busy lifestyles – the perfect app for a quick 5 minutes on your commute!
Cost: Free, with paid option to remove ads.
Duolingo is easily one of the most popular language learning apps out there – indeed, it boasts on a loading page that more Americans are learning a language using the app than in the US school system! All the major languages are represented, and the UI is delightful to navigate. Duolingo prides itself on its simplicity, and doesn’t disappoint. It’s even started adding grammar & learning notes to its various ‘stages’ to help you get to grips with the formal structures of the languages.
2: Google Translate
Great for: Quick and easy translations whilst you’re on the move.
Google Translate is basically the go-to when you need to know a word or phrase, and you need to know it fast. With translation software which is constantly learning and improving, this is without doubt the most popular language tool out there at the moment.
It won’t necessarily help you learn the language, but can certainly prove invaluable when you get to a restaurant and discover you’ve forgotten all that Portuguese you’ve been practising on Duolingo!
Great for: Intuitive, in-depth language learning – possibly the best vocab trainer out there.
Cost: Free, with paid option.
Memrise has done a great job of building a language learning platform, where much of the material is sourced from users themselves. Through a combination of flashcard-style games and audio clips from native speakers, Memrise will guide you through structured learning journeys in over 20 major languages.
4: Anything by Robert Theis
Great for: A comprehensive collection of key phrases, numbers and more – all with phonetic spelling and two-speed playback to help you pronounce correctly.
Cost: Free, with paid option to remove ads.
Dig around on your app stores and you’ll find a collection of language apps by a gentleman called Robert Theis. Generally, these are titled ‘Russian Basic’ or ‘Serbian Basic’ etc etc., and seem to focus on less mainstream languages than many of the other apps on this list.
There could be a reason for this, as nestled in among the usual ‘thank you’ and ‘good morning’, you’ll also find comprehensive lists of military phrases such as ‘put your weapon down’ and ‘don’t shoot!’. It appears these apps were developed for people visiting unstable areas of the world – but I’ve found it to be one of my go-to apps for its simplicity and wealth of key phrases.
I am, however, thankful that the Russian border guard who asked to look through my phone when entering Kaliningrad stopped short of opening up an app whose second phrase from the top is ‘Stop or I will shoot!’
5: Tiny Cards
Great for: Flashcard-style vocab training
Tiny Cards are a off-shoot of Duolingo, benefiting from its parent-app’s wonderfully simple user interface to provide travellers with a great way to learn vocabulary whilst on-the-go. The nifty thing about Tiny Cards is that you can link it in to your learning journey on Duolingo, to really double up on your efforts.
Great for: A comprehensive bank of phrases for all major destinations
TripLingo is a marvellous option for travellers – a great collection of all the most useful words and phrases you could possibly need, packaged up into an easy-to-navigate interface. It even provides voice translation and culture tips, particularly useful when travelling to a country or area for the very first time.
Of course, there are far more apps out there for travellers looking to brush up on their language skills – the likes of Babbel and iTranslate spring to mind – but this list is definitely the ones we’ve found most useful whilst journeying through Europe and beyond. We tend to have all of them installed, and mixing and matching depending on whether we’re prepping for a trip or bang in the middle of it!
If you have any other great language apps which you’ve found useful, please do leave a comment – the more the merrier!