Try using Bravolol and Google Translate when you travel abroad and don’t know the language.

Share story

You’re going on vacation to a place where you don’t know the language, and English isn’t widely spoken. Sure, you’ve learned how to say “hello” and “where’s the bathroom?,” but beyond that you’re clueless and your flight is tomorrow. What to do?

Gone are the days when tourists wander around clutching guidebooks with an index of handy phrases. Today there are more convenient ways to facilitate communication. Many digital language tools are on the market; here are two I’m using right now.


One of the easiest (and cheapest) things to do is to download one of Bravolol’s phrase-book apps, available in more than a dozen languages including Chinese, Vietnamese, Portuguese and Russian.

Each app comes with several free categories of useful phrases and essential words such as “greetings” (with remarks like “Good morning”); “shopping” (“May I try it on?” as well as words for different kinds of clothing); “eating” (“I’d like a table in a nonsmoking area” along with words for types of food); and “emergency” (“Call the police”).

Also free is the “romance” category, to which one can quickly refer if moved to say, “Can I buy you a drink?” in Italian or French or, perhaps more important, “I’m not interested.” A “favorites” category stores any phrases you star (by clicking an icon next to each one) so you can swiftly call them all up.

Each English phrase is shown in the foreign language and, in the case of a language such as Japanese, as a transliteration as well. And all the categories are on a white background and are identified with a simple font as well as colorful graphics, which makes it easy to find the one you need when you’re about to walk into a restaurant or a boutique.

But what makes these digital phrase books stand out among language apps is that when you tap a phrase, the app speaks it aloud. There’s no guessing as to how to pronounce the words. And if the app is talking too quickly for you, simply tap the turtle icon to hear the words more slowly (you can also adjust this in “settings”).

For additional phrase categories such as “numbers,” “weather,” “directions” and “sightseeing,” you can upgrade to the paid version of the app for $4.99, or opt to see ads for a free trial of the app’s complete offerings.

Google Translate

This free communication tool can be used in a few ways. (Try it out before you go as this app is a little more complicated.)

One way to use the app is to tap the camera icon, then hold your smartphone’s camera lens up to the words you want translated on, say, a street sign or a menu. In seconds, the instant-translation feature transforms the words on the sign into your desired language.

This feature has supported seven languages for quite some time, but recently Google added 20 more, for a total of 27, including Bulgarian, Dutch and Swedish.

I don’t recommend using the camera option to read your horoscope in Vogue Japan, however, as I did on a recent trip there. Long blocks of tiny text have not been the app’s strong suit.

Happily, the app is helpful in other ways. Say you’re asking for directions. You can speak, type or draw characters on your smartphone screen with your finger of whatever it is you want translated. Then up pops what you just said or wrote in the other language (along with a transliteration if relevant) and an icon that you can tap to have the words spoken aloud in the foreign language.

There’s also a nifty icon (a square with only its corners outlined) that allows you to make the translation fill your entire smartphone screen. Star a translation such as “Where is the bathroom?” by tapping the icon beside it, and it will be saved to a “starred” folder for easy access the next time you need it.

Once you begin this process — writing or speaking in your native tongue then seeing and hearing the translation — you have a few options. For instance, you can show the text translation on your smartphone to whomever you’re trying to speak with. Or you can let them listen to the audio translation. From there you can continue a conversation, either in writing or by talking into the phone. The app can listen for whichever language is being spoken then translate as you converse.

To use the app in the moment with the least amount of fiddling, set it up before time. This involves a few taps to select the two languages you’ll be using and the direction you think you’ll begin typing or speaking (for example, English to Italian).