GratiTuesday: Translation tools for lazy bones

Although my husband and I made attempts to improve our Spanish language skills on our recent trip to San Miguel de Allende, we fell pretty short of the mark. Fortunately and unfortunately, many of the Mexicans we met spoke at least some English. It was fortunate for obvious reasons, but unfortunate because, rather than practice our Spanish (and hopefully learn more), it was often easier to revert to English for expediency sake.

We came home a little disappointed in ourselves, and we wondered if our struggle to learn Spanish was worth it. First of all, we are old… and lazy… but also, with so many great translation tools available, is it really necessary? Beyond the basic words and phrases everyone should know when they visit a foreign country (please, thank you, how much is this, where is the bathroom, etc.), more complicated translations are now only as far away as your smartphone. A quick search on the googles will get you a list of the best translation apps available and Siri is always ready, willing, and able to come to the rescue in a pinch (she even has a pretty good accent).

Some things don’t require a literal translation to understand the message.
Another message that was pretty easy to translate without a tool (El Grito means “The Scream,” “The Shout,” or “The Cry”… any of which works).

Most apps support multiple languages, and many allow you to either speak the words or type the text you want to translate. Interested in having a conversation but neither party speaks the other’s language? When each person talks into the phone, their words are translated (more-or-less) perfectly. Having trouble reading a sign? Just type in the text and it will be translated at least well enough to get the general idea.

Of course, any translation tool is useless if you can’t read the words you want to translate… I got as far as “‘Life is like a cup of coffee’ It’s all in how…” I have no idea what those last two words are.

One of the easiest – and free – apps we used is Google Translate. In addition to translating multiple languages (multiple meaning over 100) by spoken word or by typing, we used our phones’ camera to “read” text. It isn’t perfect, but it helped us read menus, labels, and signs without having to type the unfamiliar words on the smartphone keypad.

Label on plate in Spanish.
Using Google Translate, my phone’s camera did a pretty good job translating the label.

I imagine that sometime in the future, we could have a chip installed in our brain which would instantly translate all the languages of the world. While that would certainly be convenient, I think much would be lost. Instead of hearing the beauty of different languages, all we would hear are the words in our own language instantly translated as the other person is speaking.

Even though I still believe it is best to at least try to speak the language of the country where you are traveling, I know that is not always possible. For those of us who struggle (and maybe are a little lazy), I am pleased that there are tools available. Although not perfect, if translation apps can help bridge the divides and help us better understand each other, I’m grateful for the assistance.

Author: Janis @

My blog is about travel, relationships, photography, and whatever else pops into my head (even, sometimes, issues surrounding retirement and aging).

68 thoughts on “GratiTuesday: Translation tools for lazy bones”

  1. Thanks for the tips! I am old and lazy too and know just enough Spanish to get me into trouble but I try! My son speaks fluent Spanish is is always challenging me. Glad you had a good trip.

    1. I guess we’ve just reached the point where we are pretty sure we won’t be fluent in any other language but English. I still think it’s important to continue to work on it. Even if we aren’t fluent, the native speakers seem to really appreciate the attempt. I just hope (like you) that I don’t say anything silly or insulting 🙂 .

  2. This is a very timely post for Richard and me. We are currently planning our walk across Italy for next Spring, and are discovering more and more that we will not be able to rely on our English (especially for daily phone reservations). Thanks for the tips. We will check them out.

    1. I think that trying to have a phone conversation in another language is hard because you don’t have the verbal cues that you can rely on face-to-face (smiles get you really far while traveling). I was blown away when I found out how many languages these apps can translate. I would think that in your case, translation apps that don’t require WiFi would be the best.

  3. Hi Janis! I always feel the same way after we go to Mexico. I WANT to learn the language but I find myself too distracted (and lazy) to actually do it. But thank goodness for translation apps these days. they really do make it easy. ~Kathy

    1. I think you and Thom are better Spanish speakers than we are. Having a few – or many – go-to phrases can get you pretty far. My “specialty” was asking for the check. For some reason, Paul couldn’t remember the words so he would always point to me when it was time. I was a one-trick pony, but I had a pretty useful trick!

  4. Thanks for the tips, Janis. I’ll check them out. I’ve been learning Spanish and French online. I spoke basic Spanish when I was in Costa Rica and was pleasantly surprised that the locals understood me. They were patient with me and even though they knew English, they did reply back to me in Spanish.

    1. I really love how most people are so friendly and helpful. When we spoke our broken Spanish, they would often reply in English to be helpful. When we asked them to speak Spanish, they would oblige and help us with our words and syntax.

  5. Reading about your very understandable difficulites learning a new language, I couldn’t help but think of The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. In them Douglas Adams invented the Babel Fish, a device that could translate any language in the universe. You need one of those! We all do, as a matter of fact.

    1. I had forgotten about that! I just googled it and, in addition to being the name of a Norwegian band, it’s an actual name of a translation device. How awesome is it that they took the name from The Hitchhiker’s Guide? The Babel Fish translated languages between species too. I need one for sure.

  6. I picked up languages easily when I was young. Now it’s a chore. Fortunately it’s been a while since we traveled in a non-English speaking area.

  7. I think the last two words in the sign are “preparas, pero..” ‘Life is like a cup of coffee’ It’s all in how you prepare it, but… The p in that handwriting is pretty fancy!

    1. Thank you, Lynn! I just couldn’t figure out the calligraphy. I googled the beginning of the quote and found something similar: “Life is like a cup of coffee. It’s all about how you make it.” It looks like the artist got a little tired and sloppy at the end (maybe she needed more coffee).

    2. That was my guess too, but only a guess! Glad Lynn translated it, it would have kept me awake, not knowing!

  8. I’ve never learned a language for a trip, but I understand your desire because you travel to the same area frequently. Thank you for the tips on the apps. A friend and husband are going to France for three weeks in September so they have been taking weekly French lessons. I applaud their efforts, but I’m definitely not interested in learning a new language for each trip. As you said, in most cases they know enough English to tell you how much it costs and can make change. 🙂

    1. I always try to learn a few important phrases but sometimes I get so nervous that I’ll say them incorrectly that I stumble and spout something nonsensical (French does this to me the most). Thank goodness many other countries educate their citizens to speak multiple languages, including, usually, English.

  9. Hi Janis,
    I’d probably be making healthy use of translation apps, like you, but if you do want to learn to speak Spanish the next time you’re in Mexico, you could always do what my cousin did when she lived in Venezuela and became a fluent Spanish speaker. She watched soap operas on television. She said that the actions made it pretty easy to figure out what was being said and that there was always a lot of dialogue. I’m not sure that all of the words would be meaningful for your day to day life 🙂 but I do love the idea of learning in a contextualized and fun way rather than memorizing and repeating terms when sitting in front of your computer at home.

    1. I have heard of people watching television shows to help them learn a language so I’m not surprised at all. I just can’t imagine watching any TV, let alone soap operas, long enough to learn a language. That sounds like torture. But you are right, it sounds like a great way to understand the context of the conversations.

  10. The modern way to use a cheat sheet. It’s okay to use a crutch Janis when it is so readily available. I have a friend who just retired to New Mexico, along with his wife. He spent two Winters there (he was semi-retired with a marketing business so could work from anywhere). He hired a tutor to learn Spanish. One of her techniques was using sticky notes around the house. She would put the Spanish word on a sticky note and attach it to the object. He said he built his vocabulary up quite quickly that way.

    1. Sticky notes are great and we use them now and then too. We have thought about hiring a tutor to work with us one-on-one. We’ll see… I just may stick with apps and muddling my way through. Being in SoCal, there are a lot of Spanish speakers here so I do have opportunities to practice a bit.

      1. When I went to school in Canada (kindergarten through grade 5), French was mandatory and we used to learn our vocabulary, not by a book, but we had an 8 1/2 X 11 inch card and the teacher had a big picture to match, and we had to learn all the words on the picture. So we had vocabulary words, then later learned to string them together into sentences. That worked pretty well – we had home scenes, barnyard, a park, a restaurant and we had to learn whether it was a female/male word – (“la” or “le”) … don’t know if that is true for Spanish as well. We have Southwest Detroit and Mexicantown and in the grocery store where I shop (as well as some other big stores), signs are in English and Spanish.

  11. I know how you feel, when you don’t get to use what you practiced. The other day I tried to talk over the phone to our granddaughter in French. She is completely bilingual and attends a French speaking school in Montreal. As soon as I spoke my first few words in French, she switched to English and that was the end of our French conversation. What a bummer!

    1. How lucky she is to be bilingual! My husband’s nephews are growing up in France and they speak at least two languages (fortunately for us, one is English). You should ask your granddaughter to help her grandpa out a bit and let him speak some French 🙂

  12. Really good tips, I’m always one who buys a little translation book before traveling. Nice to flick through & easy to find what you’re looking for 😊 never actually thought about Apps on the phone. Great post 🌸

    1. I brought one of those little books with me but never opened it. I find it so easy to use my phone instead. It’s always with me and the various functions (speaking, typing, camera) are quick and convenient. I hope you find an app – or several – that works for you.

  13. You are right, it’s so easy to be lazy with all the translation tools out there. I tried to learn German (at 33 yrs.) when I met my husband. Not using the language at all in the states, makes it difficult to remember. But, I’m always proud when we go there and I can read things and communicate a little. We are doing away with foreign languages in schools and universities – I think it’s a big mistake, but they didn’t ask my opinion. Someday, all we’ll have to do is make eye contact and everything will be understood.

    1. As English-speakers, we have gotten really lazy since so many people in other countries know at least a little. I was amazed at how many of the expats in San Miguel knew very little Spanish even though they had lived there a long time. That seemed a bit disrespectful – and very limiting – to me. Do you remember Esperanto? It was supposed to be a easy-to-learn, international language. Maybe we should all learn that 🙂.

  14. I met a woman the other day at the dog park and realized quickly she was hearing impaired. She had a translation app on her phone to translate my words into text for her to read. So we were able to have a short conversation while the dogs played. I don’t know sign language and she said her lip-reading wasn’t the best. It’s amazing to me what technology can do to enable connection (even though it does often make us not connect).

    I will definitely keep this type of app in mind for future travel. I recall on our honeymoon in Germany (26 yeas ago) how challenging communication was when we were not in the city areas. I got so stressed being unable to communicate, even to order food. It made my hubby not want to do any international travel (and he has done very little since). I know now there is more English spoken everywhere, but I loved the fact you can translate signs too!

    1. What a great use of the app! I hadn’t thought of using it that way but I bet it has been incredibly helpful to that women.

      Not understanding the words spoken around you can be very stressful, especially when you want to interact. Having these tools makes you feel more connected and less like you are on the outside looking in.

  15. I’m trying to learn Spanish too…apparently learning a language is one of the best things you can do for your brain as you age…so I’m gonna carry on trying, knowing that I can nevertheless resort to google when absolutely necessary

    1. Good for you! Learning a language is terrific in many ways, including giving your brain a workout. The woman who we did the housesitting for was from the U.S. but she was fluent in Spanish. I guarantee that her day-to-day interactions with the people around her were much richer and more nuanced than ours.

  16. Yes, we always try our best to speak as many words as possible when in a community while housesitting. Though it would seem we are pulled up with our English pronunciation that most other languages. Apparently one local on today’s walk told us if we pronounced where we wanted to go properly, the farmer won’t mind us walking over his field. Cheeky blighter!

    1. Haha! We have many Spanish location names where we live and it is funny to hear visitors try to pronounce them. And, I’m sure I’ve butchered a few names when we’ve traveled. But, it’s still important to try… did you get to walk over his field?

  17. I think I read somewhere that the optimal age to learn a second language is around 10-11 years old, and since I’ve past that window, I’m going to pass. I like the idea of using Siri to help out with translations, but first she has to understand my version of English. That may be a stretch for her, Janis. I’m sure it has nothing to do with my enunciation. 😉

    1. I was surprised how good Siri is. I can ask her something like “How do you say ‘that is a beautiful cat’ in Spanish?” and she responds with a decent accent (but, what do I know 🙂 ). I agree with you that I’ve missed the window of opportunity to really learn another language. The best I can do are a few phrases and a smile.

  18. Speaking of lazy, I simply walk around with my hubby who is fluent in both Spanish and German! So many people speak some English now it really isn’t necessary to speak the native language. But I wish I could!

  19. No matter how rusty your Spanish, the locals genuinely appreciate your greetings in their language. I found that saying buenos dias and muchas gracias usually registered a smile. After that, thank goodness for technology!

    1. Absolutely! I loved how just about everyone greeted each other on the streets. I quickly got used to saying buenos dias, buenas tardes, and buenas noches… and I mostly had the right time of day 🙃. Smiles go a long, long way.

  20. Janis, are most translation apps internet dependent? We are typically off-line when we travel except for those infrequent times when we are supported by wi-fi at a local cafe or hotel. For what it is worth, I lived in Miami during my 20’s and 30’s and still did not learn Spanish, even though I was surrounded by the language on a daily basis. I always blamed my lack of interest on the variety of dialects (so confusing) – Cuban Spanish mixed with English just isn’t pretty.

    1. I think many of them are internet-dependent, but I imagine some of the basic type-to-translate ones are not. We always had cell service in Mexico… except when we didn’t… so it never was a problem. I remember when we were in Cuba and noticing how different their Spanish sounded from what I was used to hearing in Southern California.

  21. Janis, a little late to the conversation, but wanted to include my two cents. Prior to our trip to Argentina, I contacted the Spanish department of a local college, and hooked up hiring a tutor. We spoke one on one about anything and everything. We met twice a week for an hour and a half, and I paid him $20 a session. Worth every penny!! He too recommended watching soaps (telanovas). It was a lot of fun (y fue muy guapo!) Unfortunately, while I learned the language, the Argentine accent is a bit different. But I had some great conversations and was even able to make jokes, both with my tutor and in Argentina!

    1. I think that is a great way to learn (the muy guapo tutor, I mean). I’m not sure I could watch a telanova 😕. Being able to tell a joke in another language is a big deal! Are you considering continuing with your lessons?

  22. What a helpful post! I think I’m going to try it locally. There are hundreds of dialects spoken in the Los Angeles area and the different neighborhoods have signage I cannot decipher. It would be fun to see what I can learn. Thank you!

  23. I’ve been working on German for about 35 years. (My husband was born and grew up in Germany.) I went to a high school reunion with him over the summer and I held my own. People actually complemented me. But I will also never be fluent.

    1. Wow, that’s great that you’ve been working on your German for so long. I envy those who speak multiple languages but sometimes I wonder if you can be truly fluent in any language other than your native one (unless maybe if you grew up speaking several languages). There are so many nuances in any language and, without really understanding the intricacies, things get lost in the translation.

      1. My husband is pretty fluent in English since he’s lived here since 1997 and studied it before that. But he says he’s losing some of his German! And the same high school buddies told him he has an American accent now!

  24. I have been practicing my French and German using an online language learning app. Recently, I have also started trying to learn Portuguese. But, strangely, it never occurred to me to use a translation app on my phone!


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