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Traveling to a foreign country can be tough, especially when there are language barriers. Unless you stick to touristy places, you’re often out-of-luck when it comes to reading menus and signs. That is unless you travel with someone who speaks the language or a device that can translate. Today we are going to discuss the Google Translate app features that help you maximize your next trip abroad.

Why Google Translate?

I recently discovered that you can do so much more with the service. In fact, it started last summer when we were traveling in Italy. We stayed at an Airbnb and our host was an older Italian woman who spoke very little English. I know a bit of Italian from studying it for a few years, so we managed to get by. But there were a few times where I struggled with communicating. I was surprised when she pulled out her phone, spoke Italian, and then I heard a computerized voice ask me whether I needed some help getting a dinner reservation for the evening.

How to get the Google Translate app

The Google Translate app is available for free on both iOS and Android. The app does exactly what you would expect it to do, which is translate text to over 100 languages. However, there is much more to this app than I even knew.

Google Translate features

Google Translate offers translations via camera, handwriting, conversation, and voice

Conversation mode

There is an option for conversation mode that allows you to converse with someone else in another language. You basically select your languages, then tap your spoken language at the bottom of the screen which then captures your voice. The app then dictates the translation in the target language. The only problem with this type of translation is that it can be a bit unnatural since only one person can speak at a time. They also have to initiate the translation by tapping the button.

However, if you’re looking to have a more natural conversation, you can just hit the microphone button and the app will listen for both languages and translate them immediately. This makes it a lot more useful when in situations where you’re trying to have a conversation with someone who may not be familiar with the technology.

Translations offline

At this point, you might be asking, “don’t I need an internet connection for the translation to work?” Google Translate allows you download certain languages to the app. This means that you don’t need to have an active internet connection in order for the app to perform the translation. As of April 2019, I counted 60 languages that are available for download in the app, which is impressive. That’s more than half the languages that are offered by Google Translate.

Camera integration

Another feature that is extremely useful is the camera integration. You can use it to translate signs or menus. It not only translates the word or phrase but overlays the translation on your camera’s view. So if I point it at a sign that is written in Spanish, it replaces the words with English. The same holds true for menus. The app uses augmented reality to help make the translation more contextual. This makes translating languages even easier since you don’t even need to type it in.

Also, you can have the app translate in real-time, or you can capture the image. Once the image is captured, you can then highlight which parts of the image you want to be translated. This is useful if there are multiple languages or additional text. The app also allows you to pull images from your photo library. This is useful if you need to capture something on the go and want to translate it later.

I envision this being a huge benefit the next time we travel abroad. We often seek local restaurants that are away from tourist hotspots in order to get a more authentic and local experience. Though most times, we end up struggling with the menus, especially when we’re in countries where we don’t have any foundation in the language. I’m excited to use this tool on our next trip.

Full screen mode

Full-screen mode is a useful feature

After translating a phrase or word, you can hit the full-screen icon in the lower right-hand corner of the translation or just hold your device sideways. The app displays the translation in full-screen with a dark background. This is extremely useful when in loud or noisy places where a spoken translation might be more difficult, or even when getting into a taxi.

Handwriting tool

For most of you, this probably won’t be helpful. But I can see how this feature might still be valuable when traveling. The handwriting tool allows the app to capture handwritten words or phrases. This could be useful when asking someone who may not be familiar with your alphabet or keyboard layout. Since every language and region tends to have a different keyboard, it can be challenging to ask someone to type in a phrase. Also, if you’re in a country that uses characters rather than the Latin or Roman alphabet, it might be easier and faster to have someone write out the characters on your phone using a stylus or even their finger.

Tips when using Google Translate

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when using the Google Translate app and service.

1. Download your destination’s language before your trip:

As I mentioned earlier, just like you can with Google Maps, I suggest downloading the language to your phone and tablet prior to your trip. Even if you think you’ll have a data connection, you’ll be glad to have it offline in case you have any issues with connectivity.

2. Put your phone into airplane mode if your data connection is spotty:

Since we have T-Mobile, we have free international roaming. However, I noticed that when the data connection is spotty, Google Translate struggles since it tries to pull data from its servers. If you’re struggling to get the app to work, I recommend putting it into airplane mode. This will disconnect it from the mobile network, and force the app to use the downloaded data.

3. Don’t rely on it for medical instructions:

Always ask a native speaker to translate important directions such as medications

While Google Translate can probably help you to find a specific medicine in a pharmacy, I recommend speaking to someone who can help translate the exact instructions and dosage. This advice goes for any translation that can affect your health or life. While Google Translate is very good, it’s definitely not perfect, so you want to make sure that you’re getting the most accurate information that you need.

4. Save useful phrases:

One very useful feature in the app is the ability to save translations. This can be extremely useful for phrases that you’ll use often. Phrases like “thank you”, “where is the bathroom”, “can I pay with a credit card”, “excuse me”, and “I’m sorry”.

These are some of the phrases that I think are important to know when traveling. It’s always better to know some key phrases. Also, I find that many locals will see it as a sign of respect. Having the phrases loaded ensures that you can practice it or access it when needed.

To save phrases, just tap on the star icon next to the phrase or word. Google Translate saves your recent translations, but tapping on the star means that the translation will appear in the Saved section.

5. Adjust speech input settings:

In the iOS app, there is a speech input setting that you can adjust for offensive words. By default, the app is set to block offensive words. While I appreciate that the app can censor foul language, it might be better to turn this setting off. Not that I want you to hear any offensive language, but I think it might be helpful to have a more candid translation, especially in places where the language can be a bit more casual and colorful.

6. Be careful of language variations:

The verb “to drink” is different when traveling in Spain and Latin America

Some language translations may not be as useful as others, especially those in places where there is a different variation to the language. An example is the difference between Spanish spoken in Spain and Latin America. For example, if you were to translate the verb “to drink” in Spanish, Google Translate says “beber”. Beber is commonly used in Spain. However, in Latin America, you’ll find that “tomar” is often used instead of “beber” as the verb for “to drink”.

7. Air on the formal side:

Using formal greeting is typically safer when traveling!

Another consideration when translating a language is the formality used. In English, we may not be as sensitive as other languages when it comes to using formal phrases, especially with elders. To be safe, I recommend using more formal language whenever possible. As an example, this means searching for “thank you” instead of “thanks” or “good morning or afternoon” instead of “hi”.

8. Save the phrase, “We can use this app to translate our conversation”:

If you think you’ll be using Google Translate while you travel, then I suggest saving this phrase in the app. It will save you the time of trying to explain what you are doing with your phone or tablet when speaking to people.

Have you tried the Google Translate app? If so, have you used it on a trip?

Trip Astute has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Trip Astute and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.

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