In today’s highly mobile world, you can easily find yourself needing to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language. Learning a new language takes time — and nobody has enough time to learn them all.
You can never really tell when you might want to reach for a phrasebook or dictionary to get a point across in another language, or to understand what another person has said. The iPad can give you convenient access to multiple translation tools without forcing you to carry multiple books around with you. But which iPad apps should you choose? To help eliminate the guesswork, we’ve examined eight of the top apps of this kind in the Apple App Store.
Although we’ve tested English-to-Spanish and Spanish-to-English capabilities, most of these apps either cover multiple languages in a single app or are available in multiple versions for various languages. Some stretch beyond use as phrasebooks and dictionaries to teach you more about a language. As you’ll see, each app has its pros and cons.
Got Europe? ($9.99, universal)
Geared to people traveling in Europe, but also potentially very useful in other situations, Got Europe? is relatively expensive at $9.99.
However, it does include French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Turkish. You can translate phrases to or from any of these languages, and you’re not limited to always starting with English.
This basic phrasebook app is extremely engaging and well organized. You can scroll across to complete “trains” or categories of words. (This is reminiscent of flashcards arranged side by side.) If you want to change categories, scroll down.
All of the typical categories of phrases are included, from polite greetings to weather, food, parts of the body, shopping, and much more. Tapping on a square once reveals the translated equivalent of the word or phrase; by default, the word or phrase is also pronounced, although you can turn off that function on the settings page if you’re looking for a silent drill.
You can also use the search box at the top of the screen if you’re more interested in quickly finding a particular word or phrase than in learning the basics of new languages in a systematic way. The app tracks your progress in each language, Once you get 100% in train scrolls across, you’re ready to go for that category.
The bingo game included in this game is a lot of fun, and it also helps to reinforce vocabulary learning. A word is pronounced in the specified language. Then you’re asked to translate it by choosing the right foreign language word on the bingo board. The game isn’t all that difficult to play, either.
Multi Lang Dictionary and Translator + Text to Speech (Free, universal)
This hybrid app is both a dictionary and a phrase translator. On the phrase translator side, the app uses Google and Wiktionary for supplying translations. In this app, there are no words or phrases to search through, as you’d find in a traditional dictionary or phrasebook. You’ll be typing in whatever you want to look for instead of browsing through a list.
Results are quite good, presenting you with several synonyms in addition to the part of speech, several definitions, and several sentences which use the word and are linked to the appropriate WordNet search page. There’s also a word of the day, as well as abilities to mark a word or phrase as a favorite and to share it with someone else via email.
In some ways, though, this free app is merely a demo. For one thing, there are ads within the dictionary definitions. For another, although the app will translate any phrase, it will not speak the phrase. You can see options to use a male or female voice at a user-selected rate of speech, but the app doesn’t allow you to try that function even once.
You’ll need to upgrade to the Pro version of the app if you want to use the text-to-speech translation or to download the offline dictionaries to your device, but it’s well worth the $2.99 in-app purchase price if you need that functionality.
myLanguage Translator Pro ($4.99, universal)
This app supports more languages than any of the other apps included in this roundup, However, not all of the languages include full pronunciations. The app does offer some unique features, such as the ability to specify a particular country for your translations, so you can get the most accurate possible results for that location. You can also rate translations and make suggestions for improving the app.
You can share translations with others via email, instant messaging, or text with the handy copy and paste support. MyLanguage is somewhat disappointing, however, in that there is no dictionary either built-in or available for purchase.
This app is somewhat slower to translate full phrases than the Multi Lang Dictionary and Translator app covered above. That isn’t too surprising since it’s downloading the full pronunciation each time, something that could be problematic if you’re working on a low-bandwidth connection overseas or anywhere else. (This same feature is something that you need to unlock in order to use in the competing Multi Lang Dictionary and Translator.)
If you’re completely new to a language, this app is a good place to start. Also available for translation between English and French, German and Italian, the app gives you a handy quick reference and a very basic dictionary.
It seemed strange at first to see the English and Spanish words mixed together in the dictionary, rather than in separate sections, but after a short while that wasn’t an issue. In some cases it helps to see the overlap and relationships between words in both languages.
The pronunciations provided were clear, understandable, and appropriately accented. They didn’t always correspond exactly to the printed phrase on the screen in the phrasebook section of the app, but there weren’t any major inaccuracies. The verb conjugator was quite useful, showing all of the conjugations — for singular and plural nouns and pronouns — for all of the major tenses. However, it was somewhat disconcerting that the English translation wasn’t placed next to the Spanish root verb at the top of the page.
Also in this app, you’ll find a basic vocabulary quiz. (You can choose English to Spanish, or vice versa.) The Settings tab is where you go to adjust the font and font size.
If you need more extensive resources, you can buy an extended dictionary, verb conjugator, and phrasebook through an in-app purchase at prices ranging from $2.99 to $4.99. Alternatively, you can upgrade to the full version of the app, which is available for sale for $9.99 and represents a small savings over unlocking everything in the free version via in-app purchases.
If you’d like to learn the absolute basics of a foreign language, consider Living Language Spanish. This app gives you a comprehensive basic course in the language you choose, with vocabulary drills and flashcards, grammar explanations, full pronunciations, and even a few games associated with each lesson so that you can check what you’ve learned.
The individual lessons cover bite-size pieces — just perfect for when you’re on the go. Also, you can mark individual words and phrases as “mastered,” so that when you return to the app you’ll immediately know where you are and what you still need to study.
The games are a nice addition, because they make sure that you’re truly comprehending each lesson. You’ll find a variety of them, including fill-in-the-blanks, multiple choice, word searches, and sentence builders requiring you to first choose the correct words and then place them in the right order. On the other hand, the games are quite difficult because the app demands absolute perfection, including the correct accent marks.
If you like the first eleven lessons included in the app (the first few across the essential, intermediate, and advanced levels), you can unlock the full course for $19.99 via in-app purchase. That is a relatively high price for what most would consider merely a basic course. Yet, if you prefer a more comprehensive approach to language learning, the price is reasonable — far less than for audio lessons or a traditional computer program.
Typing in phrases is one option in this app, but you can also speak the phrases you want to translate with SayHi Translate. Press a button and say the phrase; in just a few seconds you’ll get your answer in one of more than fifteen different languages.
The conversation history slowly fills the large screen of the iPad. If you need to go back and repeat something for clarification, you can just tap the relevant phrase instead of speaking it again.
Results were very good. The speech recognition is quite impressive. I had less success when translating from Spanish to English than the other way around, although the problem is my awful accent, and not the fault of the app.
It would be great to be able to delete one phrase in a conversation, but displaying a conversation on the screen is an all-or-nothing option in SayHi.
SayHi is a very good value at the current sale price of $2.99, but as with most of the other instant phrase translation apps there are no offline options.
Like the Multi Lang Dictionary covered above, this app provides both online and offline translation assistance.
Spanish English Dictionary and Translator makes good use of screen space, displaying three columns of words in dictionary view, rather than presenting a single long list. Definitions pop up when you tap a particular word, along with synonyms (if you’ve purchased that feature); pronunciations (if you’ve purchased that feature) and the ability to mark a word as a favorite. You’ll also find a phrase translator that uses either Google or Bing which lets you speak a phrase (again, if you’ve purchased that feature).
Are you noticing a trend here? This app is relatively crippled unless you unlock several additional features via in-app purchase. That’s rather disappointing for what is already a paid app. On the other hand, there are no ads to distract or annoy, which is a good thing.
You also get some customization options, in areas such as color scheme, voice speed, screen rotation, and brightness. The app is available for many other languages, too, including Dutch, German, Hungarian, Italian, Latin, Polish, and Swedish, to name a few.
This app promises to make browsing the World Wide Web on your iPad a more intelligible matter by translating foreign language text into English at the tap of a few buttons.
Installation is easy and quick, as long as you pay close attention to the directions. You must bookmark the Tap Translate page and then edit the bookmark to integrate it properly into Safari.
After that, you simply tap the Tap-Translate bookmark and then tap the word you want to translate. Your translation should appear almost instantly. If you need to translate a paragraph or even an entire page, you can try to do so by tapping the button which appears in the single word translation box.
However, my results for extended translations were less than satisfactory. These longer translations took forever, when they even functioned. Quite often, I’d get an error message instead stating that the selected text was too long. On other attempts, the little pop up box would say “Translating,” but the app wouldn’t actually do anything.
Tap Translate is pure genius when it works, but it seems to work only about half the time for paragraph and page translations. If you’re an advanced language student and you just need a little help now and then with small snippets of text, Tap Translate is an excellent tool. Yet, in its current state, it can’t be relied upon to provide translations of full Web pages. I’m hopeful that future updates will make this app faster and more reliable.