Breaking Through the Language Barrier

Preparing for Your Next Big Trip With a Language App

August 31, 2017

One of the central challenges of international travel – over and above the logistics – is overcoming the so-called language barrier. As English language speakers, we are fortunate to have a natural advantage in that our language is so widely used and understood.

Still, it’s always fun and reassuring to be able to communicate on an elementary level in a foreign language and now there are language apps that enable us to do just that.

Pros, cons and availabilities of language apps

Nikki Ekstein, Travel Editor at Bloomberg Pursuits, has written a fascinating article (July 21, 2017) about the pros, cons and availabilities of such apps, and we want to share her insights with you.

As Ms. Ekstein writes: ‘If you’re not careful about your pronunciation, it’s pretty easy to tell someone in France that you’re pregnant instead of saying you’re full. In Israel, you might ask someone to buy his or her daughter instead of buying a slice of bread. Saying you’re cold in German? It sounds a lot like saying you’re dead.’

We all know that having a few basic phrases can be enormously helpful when traveling in a foreign country and, as Ms. Ekstein observes: ‘Thanks to a rise in Rosetta Stone-style mobile apps, it’s easier than ever to pick up a new language – or at least get a grasp on the basics before your next trip.’

She adds: ‘And thanks to push notifications that keep you coming back, gamified motivational techniques, and bots that help you practice without imposing judgment, they’re likely to get you speaking conversationally – and gaffe free –before you hop on the plane.’ What follows are two of her suggestions:

For Short Attention Spans: Drops

Why you’ll like it: No reading. No typing. Just five minutes a day. 19 languages – spanning from French and Spanish to Korean and Arabic. 120 word buckets covering food, drinks, numbers, and hotel terms. All very simple.

Drops focuses on clean illustrations, all in white, set against solid-colored backdrops. Whether you’re matching pictures to their translations, unscrambling letters to practice spelling, or swiping across a grid of letters to unearth the word that matches the picture, the exercises feel like quick games rather than classroom worksheets.

Drawbacks: The heavy emphasis on building vocabulary through nouns means you won’t get much in the way of grammar, usage, and conjugations. You won’t be quizzed on speaking or pronunciation, either.

And though you can purchase unlimited time for as little as $48 per year, five-minute blocks mean that you learn at a relatively slow pace. That’s great if that’s all the time you have to spare, anyway – not so great if you’re actively trying to cram before a trip.

To Sound Like a Local: Busuu

Why you’ll like it: Busuu offers the language-learning equivalent of pen pals – if you’re studying French, you can have your speaking exercises evaluated by Busuu students in France, so long as you return the favor and grade someone else’s homework in your native tongue. To extend the theme, lessons in 12 languages include insightful tips on local usage.

Drawbacks: Most of the app’s best features, including unlimited exchanges with foreign students, are behind a pay-wall. But the plans are highly affordable: one month costs $8 and a year goes for $45, less than a dollar per week.

So there you have it. A fast and easy way to learn a foreign language both before you leave and when you arrive!

The Wooding Group at CIBC Wood Gundy, 780 498-5047