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.