When you’re traveling abroad, it pays to know the language. If you don’t speak the local lingo, however, there are a host of iPad apps that can teach you before you go, or help you fake it on the fly.
If you have the time and the discipline to learn a new language, there are several apps available in the Apple App Store that can help you do exactly that, with full audio lessons and verb conjugations. Perhaps you don’t have that much time, but you want to be able to get around on your own without relying on the hope that you’ll always be able to find a local who speaks English, so you’ll need a phrasebook or perhaps a speaking translator app. If you’ve already had a few classes, or perhaps you learned Spanish or French in school and just need a quick refresher, there are plenty of vocabulary builder apps with flashcards and quizzes galore. No matter what path you choose, knowing even a few polite greetings and basic phrases can go a long way toward making your trip both more enjoyable and more fun, and your iPhone or iPad can help you achieve that goal.
While we typically only review iPad-specific apps, many translation apps are intended for the more-portable iPhone. These iPhone-centric apps will run on your iPad they’re just not optimized for the larger iPad interface.
Unlike many of the other apps in this roundup, Absolute Beginner Japanese is in essence an enhanced audiobook. It contains 25 audio lessons of roughly fifteen to thirty minutes each. The right side of the screen contains the full transcript of the lesson, plus romanji and English. Underneath that you’ll find vocabulary lists, some with individual audio pronunciations. There are no flash cards or quizzes available in this app.
Despite the name, this app seems better suited for someone who has already had some training or classes in the language being studied. The conversations move very fast, and the audio controls are rather basic — it’s hard to move back and forth with any degree of accuracy. The developers of the app must have realized this, because each lesson contains a main audio track, a review track, and a dialog track. The Absolute Beginner series is available in also available in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Korean, and Spanish.
If you want a basic talking phrasebook for travel abroad, the “For Dummies” language app, available in several languages, would be an excellent choice. It includes a phrasebook organized by category, a basic dictionary, and flashcards (with speech) to help with vocabulary refreshers. The Basics section covers the French alphabet, pronunciation, and basic verb conjugation and tenses, with text and audio examples. There is also helpful information about sentence formation and language conventions. You can select specific words and phrases to add to a Favorites section for quick reference, and the section on Tens includes common mistakes, French holidays, common expressions, and others. A handy search box at the top helps you find what you’re looking for very quickly.
Basic French For Dummies is an iPhone app that also works well on the iPad. It’s well done, useful, and definitely worth the $1.99 price tag. It won’t teach you a foreign language, but it’s enough to get by in most everyday situations, it’s easier to carry than a paper phrasebook, and definitely faster than flipping through pages. The “For Dummies” app is also available in German, Italian, and Spanish. If you want more teaching package than phrasebook, the “For Dummies” series of audiobooks is also available on the iTunes store in the same language, plus Chinese and Japanese, for $5.95 each.
Byki Japanese is a vocabulary building app with some innovative features. It is organized around topical word lists; the Japanese version has ten quick start lessons and several other word lists; additional lists on a wide variety of topics can be freely downloaded within the app, creating a more customized experience. Once you choose a word list you are taken through a process of learning steps. First you look through and learn the words and phrases with flash cards, then in step two you see the foreign language and come up with the English translation. In step three you reverse that process, before you finally take the quiz at the end of the chapter. Each word is reviewed several times, in different ways, enhancing the learning process.
Byki tracks your progress with comprehensive statistics, and each card is updated with your progress as you work through the various learning exercises. One of the most innovative features is SlowSound, which slows down the audio clips to enable you to better hear and emulate the native speakers so that you can perfect your accent. This is the only app I found with a feature like this, and it makes a big difference. Byki is available in more than 30 languages, from Afrikaans to Zulu.
53Languages Translation and Pronunciation
(Free ad-supported version or $1.99 premium version, universal app for iPhone and iPad)
The 53languages online translation app uses your choice of Bing or Google to translate the text you enter into the box. It offers a choice of 53 languages in Google, or 30 from Bing, and seventeen of those languages can also have the phonetic pronunciation included, if you prefer that option. You can email the translation results if you like, though be advised that both the English and the foreign language translation will be included in the text of the email unless you edit it out.
The app requires a network connection in order to obtain the translations, and the free version allows you to add the phonetic pronunciation only to Japanese translations, not any of the other 16 languages that are also included in the pro version. The history section of the app keeps track of your last fifty translations, and you can also add specific translations to your favorites for later reference.
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