It’s often said that the best way to learn a new language is to be in a relationship with someone who speaks it.
Given how time consuming it would be to find bilingual companions for all the travelers on your gift list, you’ll likely want to look into less complicated ways to give the gift of language. Here are a few.
Best Budget Keyboard: Franklin Five-Language European Translator, $19.99
Franklin’s pricing scheme for its line of electronic travel dictionaries isn’t hard to figure out: The more you pay, the more data you get. The $129.99 English to Spanish model is pre-loaded with 5 million translations - the equivalent of nine different reference books - and talks to you so you can refine your pronunciation. Unless your gift recipient is heading to Madrid for a year, that’s probably more translator than he needs for a two-week vacation. The Franklin TWE-118A 5 Language European Translator is packed with 5,000 common conversational phrases, yielding 210,000 total translations in English, Spanish, French, German, and Italian. Directions, dining, lodging, shopping, and emergencies are among the categories of phrases included.
Like its more expensive cousins up the product line, the TWE-118A has a QWERTY keyboard as well as phonetic spell correction, meaning if you enter a word the way you think it sounds and you’re wrong, the device will attempt to fix your misspelled entry. This model also includes a metric and Euro currency conversion function with its calculator and a bit of Rolodex memory for storing names and numbers.
Best iPhone Language App: Odyssey Translator, $4.99
Both the iTunes and Blackberry App World stores sell or give away good language translation apps. Problem is, many of them need to hook into your provider’s data network so that the app can shoot your phrase to its database and route the translation back to your phone. An even bigger problem is that while the app’s recipient may already have a domestic data plan he’d likely have to purchase international data coverage during his trip for the app to work, if it even works at all overseas. That means that for an app to be a real gift, it should stand alone, and Odyssey Translator does just that.
Priced separately at $4.99, apps for Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, German, French, Italian, and Mandarin Chinese offer translations of typical questions across typical travel categories, but the fun here is in the execution. Tap the lovably colorful iPhone icons for each category and you’ll in turn see a bunch of blue buttons - each containing one or more words - enabling you to string together simple questions. And as you tap out such sentences as “I would like/a glass of/sparkling water/with/lemon,” the English words translate into the chosen language. The app says the translation out loud, too. Skeptical? Free downloadable demos of all the Odyssey translators are available from the iTunes store.
Best Language Tool Posing as a Game: My Coach Language Series for Nintendo DS, $29.99
If you‘ve got an outgoing kid it can be a buzz kill for the entire family if you land in a foreign country and she’s rendered silent by her inability to speak the language. Few platforms do interactive educational games better than Nintendo DS and let’s face it, those tiny, too-easy-to-lose cartridges aren’t just for kids. My Spanish Coach, along with coaches for French, Chinese, and Japanese, provide mini-games ranging from traditional word finds to “find the words that match” puzzle book fare. Audio drills utilize the functionality of the DS microphone: after the game says a foreign word aloud in a native speaker’s voice, the player can repeat the word into a mike, record it, and play it back to compare his pronunciation to the games’. The Chinese and Japanese editions smartly employ the DS stylus by permitting players to trace characters on the touchscreen and have the game grade the player’s calligraphy. Each game in the series also tracks and grades overall progress, sparking good-natured competition among players .
Best Guilty Pleasure For an MP3: Rush Hour Spanish Audio Book, $19.95
The famous line in “Rush Hour” uttered by Chris Tucker’s Det. James Carter, “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?!?” translates in Spanish to “Entiendes las palabras que salen de mi boca?!?” However, you won’t hear that phrase uttered anywhere on this three CD-set, because it isn’t that Rush Hour: Rush Hour Spanish is a so-cheesy-it’s-endearing basic language course from Berlitz that uses the time-honored teaching method of lodging songs in your head.
As described by Berlitz, this “language-learning entertainment” permits you to “listen, repeat, and sing” along with the story’s characters, Jon and Elena, who meet at the gym. Eager to learn Spanish and hook up with Elena, John engages her in charmingly stilted conversations designed to have the listener and John repeat the Spanish, such as when Jon asks Elena for her digits and you and John then practice saying “Cual es su numero de telefono?” Inevitably songs break out that incorporate the vocabulary and believe it or not, you’ll sing along. You won’t believe the words coming out of your mouth.
Best Proof That Good Things Come in Small Packages: 30 Words Translation Cards, $8.95
Pocket cards providing quick reference for foreign words and phrases have been around for ages, but such cheat sheets are seldom hip and not all that modifiable once you buy them. Language translation cards by 30 words may change that image.
The concept behind the cards, according to the founders, is that knowing “30 words can be the difference between a mundane travel experience and an unforgettable adventure,” though in actuality the two-sided, accordion-style cards hold more than 700 words and phrases along with their phonetic spellings.
The cards, available in European Spanish, South & Central American Spanish, French, and Arabic, go beyond typical travel categories, allowing users to print free content to supplement their cards. On the European Spanish cards, for example, topics cover such sports as cycling (“Necesito una bomba”/”I need a pump”) and surfing (“Hay una corriente turbulenta?/ Is there a riptide?) Modern-day shopping needs are also met: ¿Dónde puedo comprar ...? (Where can I buy?) can be matched with such items as “tarjeta de memoria” (memory card) and “CD virgen” (blank CD), and if they’re too pricey the “haggling” section reminds you to haul out the old standby “No quiero comprarlo” ( “I don’t want to buy it.”)
The cards excel when they acknowledge that travelers sometimes push their boundaries beyond walking through a museum or ordering lunch. One section dedicated to hitch hiking teaches you to say “I have no money” and “Can I ride for free?” Socializing cards not only enable you to say “Would you like to dance?” but also permit follow-up by providing translations for “You dance very well,” “I like your style,” and the slightly more forward “Would you like to come to my house?” If the bearer of this card gets a drink in the face after that, he can take heart that the card is waterproof.