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Top apps for everything from live-translating menus to teaching you a new tongue
Until such time as technology sees fit to supply us an affordable (and possibly less leech-like) Babel fish, you need to learn languages to make the best of your time in other countries, and when conversing with people who don’t speak the same language as you.
Learning a new language isn’t simple – and even translation used to be an onerous task, flipping through dictionaries while frantically trying to figure out what strange words on signs and menus meant. But today, your iPhone changes everything.
There are apps that can teach you anything from French to Japanese, squeezing lessons into spare moments you’d otherwise fritter away on Facebook or playing games. And when you’re staring at a menu in a foreign land, wondering whether excitingly strange words will result in a wonderful dinner, you can get peace of mind by pointing your iPhone their way.
This round-up explores both types of apps, featuring our favourites from the many options on the App Store.
The best iPhone language-learning apps
How to best learn a new language is a personal thing. Some people will be happiest in a classroom environment, and others want to be surrounded by books. In the context of language-learning apps on an iPhone, though, we’re not necessarily looking for comprehensive study plans, but friendly apps you can immediately get into and use at any time.
Free + IAP • v2.2.31 • 89.9 MB • By Memrise
Framed as a game where you’re an intergalactic spy, Memrise is clearly not at the more serious end of the spectrum. But beyond the oddball cartoon aliens knocking around, this is really fairly conventional – but breezy – language learning on your iPhone.
The app’s primarily concerned with building your vocabulary, through speedy tests where you tap in answers, select the correct recording to match offered text, and often get to watch video clips of locals speaking the language – which is better than an app’s tame robot doing the same. Neatly, some teaching – such as learning grammar and basic role-play – happens by way of chatbots, which seems entirely appropriate for iPhone.
The various styles (cartoon game to videos of real people) perhaps don’t really gel, but the relaxed manner of teaching proves broadly appealing. However, it’s worth noting that Memrise comes at a cost. Only the basics of each course are freely available. To delve more fully into the app, you’ll need a pro subscription, which will set you back $13.99/£13.99 per quarter, or $99.99/£99.99 for a lifetime plan.
Free + IAP • v5.1.6 • 101 MB • By Duolingo
Launching with the laudable aim of helping you “learn a language for free – forever”, Duolingo rapidly became an App Store darling. Largely, its success hinged on a friendly interface and gamified structure – bite-sized quizzes that gradually immerse you in your chosen language.
Extended use reveals some weaknesses in teaching the more complex aspects of language. In Duolingo, it’s easy to rapidly build vocabulary, but you may end up hazy on some of the fundamentals, such as how the structure of a language fully works. Also, the app’s recent lurch towards monetization stings – notably a ‘health’ system that penalizes wrong answers. This locks quizzes until your health replenishes – or you buy more using gems.
Despite these problems, Duolingo remains a fun app that’s well suited to mobile. And although it’s not our first choice for language-learning on iPhone (again, that health system…), it’s still very much worth a download.
Free • v2.7.5 • 51.0 MB • By Lingvist Technologies OU
“Learn a language at light speed” sure sounds like hyperbole, but Lingvist largely makes good on its promise, bludgeoning new words into your skull, and doing so at such speed you almost don’t realise you’re learning.
That probably sounds horrible, but Lingvist is a blast to use. It’s like intelligent flash cards in fast-forward, all based around practical sentences with a word removed. Your job is to type in the missing words.
Throughout, the interface is superb. You can toggle the full translations of complete sentences. Blanks can be revealed with no penalty – but the app tracks such things to help you do better. And concepts like verb declension are explained in context. Even a vocabulary progress page is brilliantly designed – a paragraph of text in your chosen language emboldening the words you’ve learned so far.
Besides its particular methodology, which may not click, Lingvist’s biggest shortcoming is the paucity of languages on offer (at the time of writing, only French, German, Spanish and Russian). But it was the most enjoyable experience of the apps on test, and since it’s free, you’ve little to lose on giving it a go.
The best iPhone translation apps
With translation apps, we ideally look for a range of features: working offline in some capacity, and going further in terms of camera-based translations, Safari integration, and live chats. You may be best off with a few different apps installed, depending on your requirements.
Free • v5.11.0 • 60.6 MB • By Google, Inc.
Given its speed and the huge range of languages it supports, Google Translate is your best bet for quick one-off translations. When you’re online, it can translate text between over 100 languages – but half of those even work offline.
The app integrates Word Lens, which provides instant live camera-based translation for 30 languages. In reality, it’s hit and miss, but nonetheless does the job if you need the gist of, say, what’s on a Spanish menu. The app can work with still photos, too, but that requires a data connection.
Other benefits of being online are that you can write on the screen rather than type what you want translated, and a conversation view, where two people can talk and have their words converted into the other language. It’s ambitious, if a bit stilted.
Still, for its offline smarts alone, Google Translate is an essential download.
Free • v60.0.3112.72 • 93.8 MB • By Google, Inc.
You might wonder why we’re including a web browser in this round-up, but Google Chrome has one really important relevant trick up its sleeve: web page translation. When you open a web page in a different language, Google Chrome offers to translate it – something it typically achieves with frightening speed (far in excess of its rivals), and with results that are generally very readable.
Usefully, the app also asks whether you want such translations to happen automatically in the future – handy if you’ve got a thing for Le Monde but your French still needs work. The only downside is Chrome’s Safari extension doesn’t offer a straightforward means to send a page to Google’s browser. You must either copy/paste the URL, or use Chrome’s Share sheet extension to add a page to your Chrome reading list.
Free • v3.0.5 • 77.4 MB • By Microsoft Corporation
There’s a lot of crossover between Microsoft’s app and Google Translate – and, in some cases, Microsoft comes off second best. Its app supports fewer languages than Google’s – all the major ones are covered, but Microsoft Translator’s no help in the likes of Iceland. Also, while the interface may look prettier than Google’s decidedly utilitarian effort, it offers less clarity, and mic input is slothful to the point you have to keep the mic button held long after you’ve finished speaking.
However, it does offer some advantages. There’s a little phrasebook, which feels a bit like a trip to the past, but that’s handy when in a bind, and for learning key phrases during a holiday or business trip. Photo translation, while still requiring a data connection, provides a more coherent result than Google’s app, which has you drag across words it can convert; Microsoft Translator simply places the translation atop the original image.
Finally, Microsoft Translator has a Safari extension for translating web pages. During testing, it worked well on major languages, but choked on less-used ones. Even so, for anyone who wants an all-in-one solution, it’s a decent alternate to Google’s app.
Free + IAP • v10.6.1 • 262 MB • By iTranslate
There are two flavours to iTranslate: free and paid. The free version broadly mirrors the two previous entries in this feature, enabling you to translate text between languages, but it also has a custom keyboard. This means you can type in your language when inside any app, and have iTranslate convert your words.
The keyboard is a touch clunky: there’s no auto-correct, and so you must watch your spelling. But it – and a related Messages extension – differentiate iTranslate from the competition, and prove great if you dislike regularly hopping between whatever you’re writing in and a translation app.
Beyond the free app, the premium subscription ($4.99/£4.99 per month) adds an offline mode, voice-to-voice conversations, verb conjugations, and website translation. The last of those is inferior to Chrome, but the conversations are interesting, providing an ongoing thread to peruse, as opposed to Google and Microsoft’s apps, which only offer one translation at a time.
Speak & Translate
$19.99/£19.99 • v3.6 • 57.0 MB • By Apalon Apps
Our final entry focusses on the last feature mentioned in the iTranslate review: conversations. Speak & Translate is all about choosing two languages and then having a conversation with someone, either by way of mic input or typing out replies.
Much like with iTranslate, it’s the retained history that makes the app of interest. You can browse previous answers, and see everything in context. Also, the ability to switch between spoken and written input is useful when the app doesn’t quite understand what you’re saying.
There are some shortcomings, however. There’s no offline support, and although you can share individual translations, you cannot export an entire thread – which seems like a missed opportunity. This leaves Speak & Translate more an interesting curiosity than a must-have download, but you can always try the free version and see what you think.