Pick up a foreign language with an app

NEW YORK • Talk is that if you can even speak a few words of the language used in the country you are visiting, the local residents are more likely to warm up to you and help you.

Today, there are all kinds of options that use technology to give you a linguistic edge, and perhaps even a cultural one.

The last few years have seen a proliferation of language-learning software.

These programs - many of which have popular mobile apps - use techniques such as gamification, crowdsourcing and adaptive algorithms to help beginners learn language basics.

For example, Memrise, a user-generated, language-learning platform that uses flashcards as memory aids, can help you nail the basics.

Memrise offers instruction in 25 languages and its basic level is free, with some advanced features such as progress statistics available at US$4.99 (S$6.80) a month.

Duolingo, another program with free and premium levels, offers courses in 37 languages.

It treats the process like a video game, allowing the user to collect points for scoring well on the evaluations.

Mango Languages, another well-regarded program, includes notes on cultural context and language.

Many of its best features are available only to subscribers, who pay US$19.99 a month.

Rosetta Stone is perhaps the best-known language programme and one of the most expensive.

You can buy its classes - which focus on developing spoken fluency - through an online subscription or on a CD.

There is also Babbel. With more than a million active, paying subscribers, it is among the largest language programmes. It costs US$6.95 to US$12.95 a month, depending on your level of use.

According to the company, 73 per cent of its users could have a short, simple conversation in a new language within five hours of using the app.

There are so many language apps, all claiming to be the best, that there are even sites to help you sort them out.

You can find detailed reports on Compare Language Apps, an independent testing site run by Mr Roumen Vesselinov, a professor at Queens College in New York.

He is sceptical of some claims made about apps, particularly assertions that you can learn a language quickly.

"I've had access to most of these apps over the years, but found that they were either too complicated or too time-consuming to help me learn a language before an international trip," he said.

Language experts say you should not allow the promises of a course or an app to fool you into thinking that you will easily learn a language before your next international trip.

And experts agree that there is no substitute for on-the-ground experience practising and speaking a new language.

"Think of learning a foreign language like learning to drive or playing an instrument," said Ms Maureen Linden, a retired French and Spanish teacher from Miami.

"Be satisfied with the basics for a long time and work slowly forward."

What if you do not have the time?

You can always cut corners and let the app do the talking.

A real-time translation program such as Google Translate can quickly, and reasonably accurately, translate simple English words and phrases into another language - and translate into English what someone is saying to you.

Be sure to download the language so you are not reliant on cellular service.

Ms Michele Frolla, a Londoner who writes a blog about travel and language called Intrepid Guide, said she recently turned to the Google Translate app while visiting Ostrava in the Czech Republic.

"I couldn't understand the staff at the train station, and needed to get a train to the airport," she said.

"It worked like a charm."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 16, 2018, with the headline Pick up a foreign language with an app. Subscribe