My wife and I were fortunate enough to spend time in Paris last October. A friend of mine, who has traveled extensively in Europe, gave me some terrific advice: regardless of where you’re traveling, learn how to say hello, goodbye, please, thank you, and excuse me in the local language. It will get you much more polite treatment, even if you have to lapse back into English, because you’re making an effort to speak their language.
Since it has been a been a long time since high school Spanish (“Esta es una pluma”), and that wasn’t even the right language for our trip, I decided to see what modern technology had to offer. There are a variety of high-tech options for someone wanting to pick up the basics of a new language quickly. Back when CD-ROMs were still a thing, Rosetta Stone offered courses you could buy. But now, we have the Internet and in addition to the venerable Rosetta Stone (www.rosettastone.com), now web-based; there are also competitors like Babbel (www.babbel.com) and Duolingo (www.duolingo.com). There’s even the venerable language-study pioneer Berlitz (www.berlitz.com) who, in addition to their famed in-person Total Immersion classes, now offer online self-study programs.
There’s quite a difference in pricing, though. Berlitz offers a three-month online course for $99, with the interesting option of Skype-based telephone lessons (10 for $300) to hone your skills. Rosetta Stone will cost you $35.97 for a three-month subscription, while Babbel will charge you a bit less: $26.85 for three months. Astoundingly, Duolingo is completely free. Being frugal by nature, and also wanting to save money to imbibe fine French Champagne, I opted for Duolingo.
You start by selecting the language you want to learn, and set a daily goal, ranging from five minutes (casual) to 20 minutes (insane). And then you’re immediately into it. Like Rosetta Stone, Duolingo uses pictures to introduce basic nouns such as “man” or “cat.” You also “write” the English translation of simple phrases (“un homme”) by choosing and arranging words into the proper order (as you progress, the words go away and you must rely on what you've learned). At times, you listen to a native speaker pronouncing a word or phrase and choosing the correct answer in written French. In each case, you are told whether you are correct. Your mistakes reappear at some future point. As you progress, you also speak answers into your computer’s microphone, ensuring you speak understandably.
I found Duolingo to be fun and easy to use. The entire French curriculum consists of seven parts. Each part has 10-20 skills that focus on a specific area, such as “At home” or “Shopping.” And even of those categories have multiple levels, consisting of individual lessons of the sort I described above: associating, writing, translating, speaking. There is plenty of depth here, but you could complete the entire seven parts at the lowest possible level.
You advance through the course unlocking skills and levels by completing lessons. In the month before our trip, without being particularly diligent about my five minutes a day, I had only advanced to part 2 of the course, mostly at level-one skills, but diving deeper in some skills such as “Travel.” Still, I got good at the basics. The only downside? In France, I would confidently greet someone in fluent French, only to be met with a wave of sophisticated French in response. You can only fake it so far.
While you’re travelling, one (free) app you should definitely have on your phone is Google Translate. You may have used this feature in your browser (translate.google.com), but the app takes things to a whole different level. First of all, you can download the data for a specific language, so that your phone doesn’t have to be connected to the Internet in order for the app to do its magic.
You can use the Translate app the way you would expect: type in an English word or phrase, get the translation in the language of your choice. But there’s more. You can use it in conversation mode, where one person speaks, producing a text translation in the other person’s language. The screen shows two “microphone” icons, so that each speaker can speaking in their native language, or you can use “auto” mode, which magically detects which speaker is speaking and translates to the necessary language. It’s almost Star Trek’s universal translator.
But perhaps the most magical feature is the “camera” mode of Translate. Point your phone’s camera at a street sign or other text and see the same image on the screen of your phone, with the text in your language. It isn’t always perfect, but it beats typing the text of a sign into your phone.
Bottom line: Duolingo gives you command of the essential phrases in a foreign language, and the Google Translate app for when you arrive and have to deal with the realities of getting around. Both served me well on our trip to Paris, and I would recommend them both to anyone who wants to feel a little more at ease in a foreign country.
And one last important phrase to learn, wherever you're headed: “The check, please.”
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