One of the most intimidating things about travelling abroad is the possibility of not understanding what’s going on around you. If you’re about to visit a new country, whether it’s for a short trip or long-term, you can calm your own fears of getting lost or taken advantage of by learning to read, speak, and comprehend some key phrases in the country’s native tongue.
In this article, we’ll be going over simple and free apps that’ll help you get more comfortable with 4 major languages – French, Chinese (Mandarin), English, and Spanish.
These are apps that you can use to practice for a few minutes each day conveniently from your mobile device. When I used to commute to work every day, I would drive with with my cell phone hooked up to the car radio’s aux input. I’d let my language app run while listening and repeating after basic phrases for at least a half an hour. This helped to ingrain the new words, phrases, and sounds into my mind and vocal muscle memory.
Practicing the language of the country you’re about to visit normally won’t help you disguise the fact that you’re a visitor, but it’ll help you to avoid seeming totally clueless. Your language skills can show how in tune you are with the country you’re in (and possible scams) -or not- if you learn phrases that are modern and widely used in the dialect instead of phrases that are antiquated or irrelevant.
You can find endless examples of this in languages where there are multiple dialects. A quick comparison we can make right now would be finding restroom facilities are in the United States versus the United Kingdom.
For example, I’ve learned that if you’re in the United Kingdom or any part of Europe where there are signs in English, you’ll see that they’re labeled “W.C.” You can ask to be directed to them by asking where the “water closet” is. But if you ask for a water closet in the United States, almost no one will have no clue what you’re talking about. In the United States, there’s no such thing as a water closet. But we do have “bathrooms” or if you’re a little more refined “restrooms”, “ladies’ rooms” or “mens’ rooms”.
Make your travels smoother by using language learning apps whose creators are in tune with the real world. It helps to read the user reviews before downloading and using them to determine how good the app will be.
Here are ones I can recommend, 2 in languages I can understand and was therefore able to verify the quality of the lessons, and 2 others I found fun to learn with that are also highly recommended by others.
Learn French Online – UFO Studio -French is the official language of 29 countries in the world. As a result, there’s a big selection of French travel apps on the Google Play Store. In total, I tried three before deciding that this one was helpful enough to mention.
The first app I picked and deleted after five minutes, Memrise, was listed as a Best App of 2017 and Editor’s Choice. But it was frustrating. You can’t move from one screen to the next without being reminded that you should upgrade to the paid version. I get it – the developer’s trying to make money and rightfully so. But if your free version is more like a demo and mostly an ad for your paid app, don’t pretend you have a useful free version. They also make you sign in with your email address before starting to use the app. I had three emails from them by the next day and had to unsubscribe. The app itself is like a memorization game, which could be interesting but I’d rather learn at my own pace, jumping around the app as I please. The option to do this may be available, but I couldn’t tell because ads were constantly appearing as I tried to figure the app out.
The second app I chose didn’t have this ad problem but it had a similar learning game format I couldn’t escape from so I kept searching until I found the app below, which you’ll see by the other apps I mention, is my favorite language app format. It provides a simple menu with categories I can choose from, read the words/phrases, repeat after and listen to at my own pace. There are ads at the bottom of the app as you can see in the screenshot, but they are not intrusive at all.
Learn Chinese – LPlay Studio, rated 4.3 stars on the Google Play Store. This app that lets you listen to each phrase individually or run through all phrases within a category. The timing is slow enough that you’re able to listen carefully and repeat after it. The phrases are written in Mandarin with and English transliteration which will help you better recognize the Chinese characters and pronounce the words more accurately.
The phrases taught are probably pretty formal and I noticed that a couple of the pronunciations are different than what I hear in Chinese movies. As an example, the app tells you to pronounce “Thank You” like this: Xie Xie; where I’ve become accustomed to hearing it pronounced like this: Shisha.
I used a similar app to practice Arabic. That experience paired with the pronunciation difference I mentioned above leads me to believe that this app teaches you formal versions of the phrases. This would be understandable since there are many dialects of Mandarin. In most languages where this is the case, learning the standard version is the best way to start. You may sound a little silly to natives but It’s the best way to ensure that you’re easily and broadly understood.
English Basic – Travel English by Mobile PhL, rated 4.7 stars on Google play store. For a free app there are plenty of exercises covering different every day topics, and there’s even video, and a radio feature where you can listen to numerous broadcasts from the UK and different countries, but oddly, none from the USA.
The lessons feature written text that’s narrated by apparently native American English speakers. You can pause and replay the content but it’s not broken down into segments so you’d have to speed to repeat after them. I think this app is great for someone who’s already studied English for long enough to be able to read it without any problem, but needs to practice listening comprehension or become conversational.
Another nice thing about the app is that it has engaged developers; I wrote a short review after trying it out and they replied with a comment within an hour thanking me.
Spanish (Latin America)
Latin by Codegent Ltd., adorably misnamed on “Latin”, it’s probably referred to this way because the Spanish featured in the app is from Latin America instead of Spain. There’s a paid version and a free version which is just fine if you’re a beginner. If you want more phrases, the paid version is an inexpensive upgrade.
The icon for the app is a Mexican flag, so it was predictable that the native speaker featured would speak the with a Mexican accent. However, the words used are very standard and didn’t seem to include any regional slang, so this should app would help you brush up on your basic language skills before a visit to any Latin American country and even Spain.
Well, I hope this article has helped to you pick an app to practice your new language, or at least given you some ideas on what type of apps to look for.
If there’s an app you’d recommend please mention it in the comments, and don’t forget to subscribe so we can let you know when we post again about apps that can help you in your travels and remote work life!