Speaking the local language—or at least knowing some basic phrases—is one of the best ways for travelers to tap into foreign cultures. In countries where English isn’t widely spoken, it’s essential to learn some key words and phrases, but even in places with an abundance of English speakers, you’ll find that locals tend to respond better when spoken to in their native tongue.
If you’re looking for a handy phrasebook that will teach you the basics, check out the Fodor’s Travel Phrases app (works on iPhone and iPad), which features everyday phrases (with recorded pronunciations) in 22 global languages. But if you want to know more than “Where is the nearest bank?” and “thank you,” you’ll need to do some studying. The next time you’re planning an international trip, consider practicing the local language with these 7 indispensable language-learning apps and websites.
Incredibly well-designed and user-friendly, Duolingo is a free site that teaches users languages through drills, requiring a mix of reading, writing, listening, and speaking. An “immersion” section allows you to read real-world articles while helping to translate them. Beyond that, Duolingo makes studying fun by awarding you points for lessons completed and bonuses if you do well; a social aspect allows your friends to see your progress and vice versa. If you wish, Duolingo will send you daily reminders to study, which is easy to do, even while you’re on the go, if you download their free app. Currently, the site offers instruction in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese (Brazilian), Dutch, Irish, Danish, and Swedish. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can study multiple languages simultaneously at no extra charge.
If you want to interact with native speakers, try Livemocha, which provides lessons in more than 35 languages. Reading, writing, speaking, and listening are studied separately on its platform, with structured lessons that first present new material before asking users to apply what they’ve learned. Premium membership isn't free, but you can earn lesson credits by tutoring other clients (e.g., editing something that they’ve written in your native language, or giving feedback on their pronunciation via audio recordings). Livemocha also allows its users to access virtual classes or book private tutors for online sessions.
With an international community of more than 40 million registered native speakers, Busuu relies heavily on its customers' efforts to help teach each other. Beginners' lessons use flash cards for learning new words and phrases, but advanced lessons involve writing and answering questions that will be reviewed by native speakers on the site. Dialogues, writing exercises, and audio recordings are also part of the mix, but grammar-focused lessons, video units, and printable PDF files are only available via paid memberships. However, the free lessons are available on-the-go via Busuu’s apps. The site offers instruction in Spanish, German, French, Italian, Portuguese (Brazilian), Russian, Polish, Turkish, Arabic, Japanese, and Chinese.
If you’re serious about learning, consider signing up for an online course from Living Language, with offerings in 20 languages. Available in a variety of course lengths and costs, the lessons combine vocabulary, grammar, audio conversations, and cultural notes. Games, puzzles, and e-tutoring with native speakers are other popular features. Apps for the iPhone and iPad offer full course content, interactive games, and flash cards on the go. If you don’t want to pay for a course, Living Language’s Free Resources section affords a variety of language-specific PDFs that are useful to travelers or anyone looking to build vocabulary in a language they’ve already studied.
Foreign Services Institute
Deceivingly simplistic in appearance, the Foreign Services Institute features extensive text and audio resources for more than 45 languages. Designed by professional linguists for the U.S. government, these free materials are of the highest quality, created with the aim of aiding users gain fluency. Lessons are organized around grammar and repetition, and in addition to more popular languages, the site offers resources for learning lesser-studied options like Romanian, Igbo, Serbo-Croatian, and many more. Note that though the site hosts government-sponsored learning materials, which are in the public domain, it's actually run by private individuals.
Visual learners should head to Memrise, a site that features countless categories of so-called “mems,” user-generated mnemonic flash cards that rely on graphics, humor, and imagination to implant new vocabulary in your memory. The site hosts thousands of free courses in many languages; you can also upload your own mems for other users to view. Because the content is entirely user-generated, the quality may vary, but when mems work, they really work.
In its “Quick Fix” section, BBC Languages showcases useful phrases in 40 languages, but the site’s strong suit is the comprehensive lessons it offers in seven languages: French, German, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, and Chinese. For these foreign tongues, the site conducts assessment tests to identify your level as beginner, intermediate, or advanced, and accordingly provides resources like PDF vocabulary lists and crossword puzzles. Video lessons are the most valuable component on the site, as it’s difficult to find similar offerings for free elsewhere.