The word impact comes up a lot in the sustainable travel space as something we want to reduce or minimize, especially from an environmental standpoint. But when it comes to forging intercultural connections through travel, the idea of impact takes on a new meaning. Ideally, we want our shared experiences to leave a lasting impression upon us and to have a mutually beneficial impact. The depth of this impact depends on our ability to communicate. Thanks to a variety of accessible language learning tools, travelers can develop that ability with ease.
Language barriers are often the biggest challenge for travelers seeking authentic connections abroad. But making an effort to break down those barriers – to try and communicate anyway with a few broken phrases- can instantly open the door for a memorable interaction. In addition, when travelers make a deliberate effort to speak a language foreign to them, they signal respect to locals, which invites more acceptance and trust in return.
There are also more pragmatic reasons for travelers to improve their foreign language skills, such as efficiency, safety, confidence, and the all-important ability to read a menu. Moreover, when travelers empower themselves with foreign language skills, they feel confident enough to seek out situations that don’t primarily cater to tourists. This might look like jumping into a game at the park, striking up a conversation at a local bar, or complimenting an artist at a neighborhood gallery. These simple connections we often take for granted at home can electrify our entire experience abroad because the act of speaking in a new language feels vulnerable. But most of the time, native speakers meet language flubs with gracious humor, which makes taking these little risks more fun for travelers!
Language learning becomes a much more complicated task for full-time travelers and those who plan to visit several countries in one trip. Asia, for example, is home to nearly 2300 spoken languages. But don’t let that intimidate you! With access to a smartphone, there are plenty of handy resources for building language skills on the go.
Without further adieu, here’s our list of 11 language learning tools for travelers.
Language Learning Tools For Travelers
1. TripLingo (free)
TripLingo’s founder, Jesse Maddox, had no foreign language skills when he embarked on his two-year journey across ten different countries in Asia. His comic (and not-so-comic) misadventures inspired him to create a tool for himself and fellow travelers who want to feel more empowered as they roam. Thus, TripLingo was born.
TripLingo is the ultimate app for international travelers who need translation help in a pinch. Even if you don’t know a single phrase of a given language, you can still communicate with locals by instantly translating your voice into their language and have the response translated back into English! TripLingo also includes an interactive phrasebook, culture notes, a tip calculator, and safety tools such as emergency help numbers in foreign lands to help you feel at ease in any situation.
Another travel-friendly feature of Trip Lingo is its built-in Wi-Fi dialer, which allows you to make free international calls when connected with Wi-Fi – it’s a safety and convenience feature in one!
TripLingo is a must-have for travelers who want to feel confident and safe in unknown territory.
2. Duolingo (free)
Duolingo is a crowd favorite, and for good reason. It’s a free, user-friendly application that covers over 30 major languages. It also includes languages that aren’t as well represented in other learning apps, such as Norwegian, Swahili, and Klingon.
More importantly, Duolingo meets you where you are as a student, whether you’re a total beginner or an advanced speaker. You can choose to start at level one or take a placement test, then commit to how much time you want to spend on the app each day.
3. Babbel (free & paid)
Babbel puts its learners on the shortest possible path to real-life conversations by addressing their individual needs for both visual and auditory learning. This language learning tool breaks lessons into digestible chunks with gamified quizzes. Rather than offering cookie-cutter lessons that teach the same vocabulary and phrases regardless of language, Babbel customizes each set of lessons for the specifics of each language, country, and culture. The free version gives users access to standard lessons, while a paid subscription includes live classes taught by real instructors. Babbel offers thirteen different language options.
4. Busuu (free & paid)
Busuu gets its name from the rarest language in the world, spoken fluently by only EIGHT people. To prevent its extinction, the founders of Busuu traveled to its birthplace (a small village in Cameroon, Africa) and asked the native speakers to share their unique language on video. A Busuu language course is now available online for anyone who wants to help preserve it.
Ironically, Busuu is now the world’s largest social network for learning languages, 100-million-strong. The application connects learners to native speakers within the network, allowing them ample opportunities for direct conversation. Learners can also send off their writing exercises to a native speaker for in-depth feedback. In addition to providing an educational community, Busuu courses are designed to maximize both self-directed and external motivation with reward systems and feedback to help increase feelings of competence in students.
Busuu is also proven effective as a language learning tool. According to an independent university study, 22 hours of Busuu Premium yield the same proficiency as a college semester of language learning! Learners can sign up for free, or subscribe to a Premium membership to unlock more advanced grammar lessons, Offline Mode, and even a McGraw-Hill Education certification.
5. Lirica (paid)
Lirica challenges the traditional approach of most language learning tools by harnessing the power of music! Its creators are an eclectic mix of music fans, linguists, designers, and engineers who believe in making language learning fun and accessible. Lirica works by deploying rapid-fire exercises based on memorable hit songs in the listener’s language of choice. Connecting language to catchy tunes helps learners master key phrases while gaining cultural context. So far, the app offers English, German, and Spanish language training and plans to launch more languages soon!
6. Memrise (free and paid)
This language learning tool appeals to travelers who enjoy a little friendly competition, and of course, memes! It works by repeating keywords and phrases and prompting users to match them with videos and text, awarding points for accuracy and speed. The Memerise community itself makes these memes, so users can contribute their own memes as they advance in the hierarchy of users – from Membryo to Overlord.
Memrise developed its unique educational approach by identifying the ineffective elements of other language learning tools. When it comes to speaking a new language, Memrise found it is more important to have the confidence to speak and be understood than worrying about accuracy. Traditional methods for teaching grammar can sometimes slow progress down, so they’ve put those on the back burner.
For access to all language courses and features, users pay for a monthly, quarterly, annual, or lifetime subscription.
7. Mondly (free and paid)
Mondly is a gamified and efficient language learning tool with access to 41 languages. Built for ultimate convenience, it can be used “Anytime, anywhere and on any device.” With bite-sized lessons based on real-world situations, travelers learn eminently useful phrases. Mondly also has a convenient hands-free feature, so travelers can continue their practice in transit, shopping, working out, etc. It also facilitates real-life conversations with native speakers and offers a 24/7 chatbot speaker for convenient practice in any time zone!
8. (How to) Pronounce (free)
Everyone knows that horrible, rashy feeling of attempting to order something on a foreign menu, butchering the pronunciation, and proceeding to awkwardly laugh your way out of it when deep down you feel like such a clod…
(How to) Pronounce is the perfect solution for this problem both at home and abroad!
Think of this app as a convenient little cheat sheet to keep in your back pocket. While it doesn’t include the extra features of other language learning tools on our list, it helps users learn the exact pronunciation of words and phrases they encounter in everyday life. Phew. Now you can go to a snazzy French bistro and order the Boujolei Nouveaux with confidence!
You may remember hearing about Bright Trip’s educational platform in our recent Top 10 Travel Vlogs That Promote Sustainable Tourism . This video-based course breaks down the process of language learning for travelers and provides actionable tips to make the whole process easier. This resource differs from other language learning tools because it helps travelers mentally reframe the entire learning process. This course also has a suite of language learning resources, including a master startup list of essential vocabulary.
10. FluentU (paid)
For entertainment lovers, FluentU is a dream come true! It takes real-world videos (think music videos, movie trailers, news, and inspiring talks) and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. So if you’re a cinephile, a youtube addict, a news binger, or just obsessed with pop culture, you can spice up your media diet with language lessons from FluentU!
Each FluentU video is accompanied by annotated captions that contain each word’s definition, an associated image, and sample sentences. Clicking on a word can pull up other videos, allowing you to see how that word is used in different contexts. FluentU also offers “learn mode,” which uses the video content to create flashcards and quizzes.
Best of all, FluentU uses an algorithm to personalize your learning experience. First, it allows you to select your own videos and work at a comfortable pace. Then, based on your viewing history, it presents questions that build upon what you’ve already learned.
Finally, by covering real-world topics of interest in Chinese (Mandarin), English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, and Spanish, FluentU gives travelers the bonus of relevant cultural context, which helps facilitate organic conversations.
11. Google Translate (free)
Although it’s not a language learning tool per se, we would be remiss not to mention Google Translate for its unmatched utility. The widely known application is now compatible with any other app, so whether you’re texting, chatting in WhatsApp, or using Facebook messenger, you can directly translate text without having to toggle between applications or use copy and paste. Google translate’s offline feature makes it an indispensable resource for travelers who have wandered off the beaten path or don’t have a reliable internet connection. It can also translate speech, typed or handwritten text, and photographs with or without an internet connection for maximum flexibility. The desktop version is ideal for longer text samples such as travel-related documents, brochures, articles, or email correspondences.