Why We Shouldn’t Always Use Translation Apps When We Travel

AI-assisted apps make navigating language barriers easier. But at what cost?

Illustration showing several travelers in different locales and dealing with foreign words via tech devices

Language apps can be helpful when we travel, but they also have their shortcomings.

Illustration by Glenn Harvey

I have always loved languages. I began learning French and German in middle school, and by the time I graduated from high school, I had two years of upper-level French and Italian, three years of upper-level German, and a foundation in opera, which gave me a reverence for the art of translation. In college, I studied French medieval poetry and Norse sagas.

My education was a rarefied experience, but those early forays into communication have shaped the way I think of language and its potential to foster connection. Today, the learning landscape has changed. We have powerful computers in our pockets, and translating at the touch of a button is the norm; apps such as Duolingo can help us with our Greek, Hindi, and Haitian Creole. Sometimes, as with Google Translate, our devices even speak for us, and suddenly, a once-insurmountable language barrier is removed. All this, I think, has its pros and cons.

To err is human, but machines are not divine. When we tap our words into an app, we lose the colors, rhythms, tones, animation, and thoughts that make communicating across languages so interesting. Often, what’s missing is context: Tech can’t understand linguistic nuances or read the situation, because it can’t see and assess the scene or moment. While these programs can learn grammar rules, they lack the leaps of thought humans are capable of. Without intuitive intelligence, they can’t make sense of new information on the fly.

Illustration of two travelers in a city, with backpack and roller bag

Both Google and Microsoft have strong translation apps.

Illustration by Glenn Harvey

As a traveler, I worry that sole reliance on this technology renders our conversations on the road transactional and impersonal. With apps, the potential for the quantity of our interactions increases—we are able to ask for more things—but the quality of the connection can diminish. After all, the people we meet on our travels are not just avatars: They have personalities, full lives, and unique perspectives on their home. If we’re lucky, sometimes they’ll share it with us. My hope is that we, as global citizens searching for connection, can see these technologies as an aid, instead of depending on them alone to navigate new linguistic terrain.

Just because translation apps exist doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to learn a language in preparation for a trip. Before I travel, I brush up on my conversational skills: I’m quick to pick up a grammar workbook, watch videos about pronunciation, or even schedule a language session with a friend. Streaming TV shows or films from the country also helps get my brain in the right mode before I leave home.

Even when I’m competent in a language, I still try to carry a phrase book when I’m in a foreign place. At the very least, I print out a list of essential words and phrases, including greetings and terms such as “excuse me,” “thank you,” and “bathroom.” More often than not, I’ve found this low-tech approach endears me to people and is met with grace and goodwill, interpreted as active interest in a place.

I’m still trying to figure out how to navigate our brave new world, and when I do use translation apps, I try to do so sparingly. Instead of instinctually pulling out my phone, I ask myself, Do I really need an app to try to say what I’m going to say? Most often, I employ these technologies when my language skills aren’t a match for the level of specificity that I need and I don’t have the option of human-to-human translation. On a recent trip to Japan, I used DeepL’s scan-to-translate feature to “read” about treats available to order by mail, and turned to Google Translate to communicate with a pharmacist so I could get pain relievers for cramps.

In situations like these—phone in hand—I also pay careful attention to my body language. When appropriate, I make eye contact. An app may make it easier to communicate, but that’s just one facet of the exchange.

If all of these efforts fail, I’m prepared to point and smile, to use nonverbal cues. Is this clumsy and with more risk of embarrassment? Perhaps. But we’ve employed this form of connection for thousands of years. Language, after all, gives us a frame we can use to make sense of our experiences, however simple, however crude. And we don’t always need an app for that.

Latria Graham is a writer, editor, and cultural critic currently living in South Carolina. She is a columnist at AFAR and a contributing editor at Outside and Garden & Gun magazines.
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