Traveling in countries where you don't speak the language can be daunting, but technology has made the process much easier in recent years.
Google Translate leads the way, with Android and iOS apps that help travelers navigate everything from menus to text messages, conversations to pronunciation in over one hundred languages.
Note that many of these features require an Internet connection.
Easily Read Menus and Signs
One of the best features of Google Translate is its ability to decipher menus and signs using the camera on your phone or tablet. Simply select the camera icon on the app's main screen, then point your device at the words you don't understand.
The app scans whatever you're aiming at, detecting what it believes are words and phrases. You can translate everything, or select just the part you care about with a swipe of your finger.
The feature works best with crisp, typed text, but as long as the words are clear enough, it's surprisingly accurate. I used it regularly in Taiwan to translate lengthy restaurant menus written in Chinese, for instance, and was able to work out what I was eating every time.
This part of the app now supports nearly 40 different languages, with more being added all the time. The company has started using neural technology for some of these languages, which gives more accurate translations by looking at entire sentences for context, rather than individual words.
Get a Pronunciation Guide
Knowing the right words are only half the battle in a foreign country. If you get the pronunciation wrong, you'll often have just as much trouble as if you didn't speak the language at all.
The app helps with this by offering to speak translated words and phrases out loud – you enter the words in English, they get translated, and then you tap the small speaker icon to hear them through the phone speaker.
You'll have more success with fairly common languages, which use real voice actors. The others use a robotic translation that's going to be harder for anybody to understand.
Have a Basic Conversation
If you need to have a simple conversation with someone, the app can assist there as well. You'll need to find someone who's fairly patient, however, as it's not a very natural experience. After selecting the language pair you want to use and tapping the microphone icon, you're presented with a screen with buttons for each language.
Tap the one you know, then speak when the microphone icon is lit up. Your words are translated into text on the screen and spoken out loud. If you then tap the other language button, the person you're talking to can reply, and that will be translated as well.
You probably wouldn't want to use this feature for lengthy or complicated conversations, but it works well enough for basic communication.
Translate That SMS You Don't Understand
If you're overseas and using a local SIM card in your phone, it's not unusual to receive SMS messages from the cell company in a language you don't understand.
Often it's just advertising, but sometimes it's something more important – perhaps you've got a voicemail, or are getting close to your call or data limit and need to top up your credit. The problem is, you usually don't know which is which.
Google Translate has an inbuilt SMS Translation option that reads your recent text messages and lets you select the one you'd like to translate. It only takes a second and can help ensure your phone keeps working when you need it.
Can't Type the Words Out? Draw Them Instead
While some languages are easy enough to type on a standard English keyboard, others are quite difficult. Accents, diacritics, and non-Latin languages require different keyboards, and often some practice, to be able to type correctly.
If you only need to translate a few words and using the camera doesn't work (a hand-written note, for instance), you can write them directly on the screen of your phone or tablet instead. Just copy the shapes with your finger and as long as you're reasonably accurate, you'll get a translation just as if you'd typed the words in.