One of the pleasures of travel is being able to speak the language of the place you’re visiting – or at least say “hello” and “where’s the bathroom?” Whether your trip is in two weeks or two months, there’s no excuse for not broadening your vocabulary. But how? With so many methods – CDs, videos, apps, podcasts – picking one can feel more overwhelming than learning a language.
The systems below have been used by tourists, college students and FBI agents. Some cost hundreds of dollars. Others are free. In trying to find the best, websites that were difficult to navigate or had distracting advertisements were ruled out, as were in-person classes because their cost and availability varies greatly. Whatever your budget or destination, there is a program to help you feel less like a tourist.
If your pockets are empty
The BBC ( BBC.co.uk/languages): Users will find instruction for 40 languages, including French, Spanish, Greek, Chinese, German, Italian and Portuguese. Click on a language and then “holiday phrases” to see an array of vocabulary categories – Food and Drink, Shopping, Getting Around – that can be downloaded as audio files. There are also cultural notes and games, like “French Property,” in which users click and drag real estate listings (“belle maison de campagne, jardin attenant, veranda”) to match them with a corresponding photo. Choose the correct answer and a woman’s voice exclaims, “C’est magnifique!” For those who have at least 12 weeks before a trip, there is an easy-to-use beginners’ course. According to the BBC, the syllabus conforms to the first level of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment, a scale for language-learning proficiency.
Bottom line: A lively, breezy introduction to a language, though some of the videos are not available in all areas.
Coffee Break Spanish and Coffee Break French ( RadioLingua.com/shows): A search on iTunes will turn up many delightful (and free) language lessons, including these spirited podcasts from Radio Lingua Network, which promise “language learning with your latte.” Each 15- to 20-minute podcast encourages participation (listeners are asked to pinch their noses to achieve the perfect French “non”). The network also offers “One Minute” crash courses (really two to four minutes) in languages including Arabic, Greek, Mandarin and Irish.
Bottom line: The hosts are Scottish, so while you’re learning French or Spanish, you also may feel as if you’ve been transported to South Ayrshire. But you’ll enjoy smart, energetic, well-produced lessons.
Digital Dialects ( DigitalDialects.com) Visitors can beef up their vocabulary by identifying items in animated scenes. Choose Italian and a category like “Clothing,” and you’ll be asked to match the word to the fashions worn by a graying Italian lady (when red arrows point to her dress, select “il vestito”).
Bottom line: Definitely more educational than playing FarmVille on Facebook. Still, the site may be better suited for children.
French in Action ( Learner.org; type “French in Action” in the search box): This 1980s instructional television series produced by Yale University and WGBH Boston with Wellesley College is a kooky romp through Paris and environs in which an American man and a fetching French blonde exchange basic phrases. Performed in French without subtitles, it is supposed to prevent students from translating words in their heads, so that they will learn the language in context.
Bottom line: Chances are you’ll have to watch this more than once to build your vocabulary, but you’ll be entertained.
Learn a Language ( LearnaLanguage.com): Users choose a language (Japanese), then a category (“Japanese Words”), followed by a topic (“Travel”). Next, they decide whether to play an educational game or click through talking flash cards. There’s one word on each card, which can be flipped over with a click. For example, a card with “suutsukesu” on one side says “suitcase” on the other.
Bottom line: The website is not as comprehensive as others, but it enables users to study key words and phrases without having to make their own flash cards.
Living Language ( LivingLanguage.com; click on “free downloads”): While this company primarily sells language products (about $20 to $180), it also offers freebies like pocket phrase guides and an “in-flight” series to help “learn before you land.”
Bottom line: Living Language is not a free site, but the guides are a nice perk for those who can only afford to dip a toe.
Livemocha ( Livemocha.com): This networking site allows members to find language partners around the world, and it offers basic instruction in grammar, vocabulary and conversation (users need a microphone). There is a fee for unlimited access ($9.95 for one month; $99.95 for a year).
Bottom line: While the videos sometimes load easily and sometimes don’t, it helps facilitate learning by talking – a big plus.
If your pockets are deep
Pimsleur Approach ( PimsleurApproach.com): This audio-only program, based on the language retention theories of the linguist Paul Pimsleur, has been used by the FBI. The company claims that students who use the CDs for 30 minutes a day will begin speaking the language in just 10 days – no textbooks required. The idea is that adults learn language the same way children do: by hearing it in everyday situations (the CDs focus on about 2,500 core words and phrases). The program begins with a 30-day trial of Quick & Simple, eight lessons for $9.95. Then, every 60 days, users receive in the mail a higher-level course with 30 lessons, which they can keep (for $256) or return within 30 days at no cost plus shipping. Progress to the most advanced courses, and the entire system can end up costing upward of $750, depending on the language.
Bottom line: This approach can be as expensive as a plane ticket, but if you want to learn fast, naturally and on the go, it just might be a match.
Rosetta Stone ( RosettaStone.com): You’ve probably seen the kiosks for this interactive software in malls or airports. It is available in 30 languages ($159 to $499) and has been used by government agencies. Students are not bogged down with translation and grammar. Instead, the emphasis is on “dynamic immersion” – connecting words with images to glean meaning. (Those who buy Version 4 can reinforce lessons with mobile apps.)
Bottom line: Rosetta Stone is much more intensive than a vacation primer. But if you want to keep learning long after your trip, it’s a far better investment than a souvenir snow globe.
Transparent Language ( Transparent.com): “Our methodology was originally developed in some of our work for the Department of Defense,” said Chuck McGonagle, the senior vice president and general manager of Transparent Language. “It was all focused on building your vocabulary.” And the company’s primary product, Transparent Language Online ($149.95 for six-month access; $199.95 for a year), does just that. Users begin with the Essentials Course: lessons organized around everyday situations like greetings, shopping, checking into a hotel. For those short on time, there’s the Byki Quick Start course, or the free Byki Express program at Byki.com.
Bottom line: This is one of the most affordable big-name systems, and it enables users to practice anywhere they have Internet access.