The ultimate travel accessory? More than a hardcase Tumi carry-on or sleek leather passport holder, it's an at-least elementary grasp of your destination's native tongue. From reading menus to asking directions, dealing with local transportation -- and not getting taken for a ride -- familiarizing yourself with the lingua franca might just be the singlemost important thing you can do to improve your travel experience.
These days, we live much of our lives online, and the field of language learning is no exception. While those with the time and money can easily sign up for a language class the old-fashioned way (a 10-week, 30-hour Spanish course at New York's Instituto Cervantes will run you between $455 and $535, for example) many of us have neither the bandwidth nor the inclination to commit that kind of face-time to improving our foreign language skills. And that's OK! These days, there are more options than ever, and, thanks to technology, it's easier than ever to sneak in a half-hour tutorial on your morning commute.
In anticipation of an upcoming trip to Ecuador, I've been researching best bets for brushing up. I studied Spanish in college, spent a semester in Buenos Aires and a year in Madrid -- but eight years in New York have me feeling rusty on the finer points of ser and estar and, well, just about everything else, too.
Brazilian site Livemocha takes the concept started by person-to-person chat sites like Chatroulette and puts an educational spin on the interaction. For just $9.95 a month, you can chat with native speakers all over the world -- a good thing, for, as anyone who has learned via immersion will attest, the best way to learn is by speaking. There are also programs to watch and videos with instruction on grammar, vocabulary and other fundamentals.
Also $9.95 a month for unlimited access, it was a no-brainer to sign up for Yabla's Spanish language site. What makes Yabla unlike any of the others I looked at is that they continuously update their sites with exclusive original content. They also use TV shows and movies, but the videos that I found the most engaging were the interviews with native speakers.
Some recent footage came directly from London's Olympic village, giving the programming a very current feel. Much of the content deals with cultural issues, so the vignettes often cross over into travelogue territory, a pleasant surprise for someone with a trip planned. Some examples: the French site features a behind-the-scenes look at macaron making as well as tours of favorite Parisian neighborhoods led by the quartiers' denizens themselves.
Since I'm heading to Ecuador, I searched by that location. (A great feature allows you to filter videos by desired accent. Perhaps you speak a passable Spanish from your time in Mexico but want to adjust your ear to lispy Castilian, for example.) I found interviews with Ecuadorean musicians, a lively group of Ecuadorean expats sharing mojitos in Miami and more. Each video comes with the option to enable or disable Spanish subtitles and English translations, listen to particular phrases on loop or play a game relating to the segment. Also, all content is optimized for iPhone and iPad, making it easy to take advantage of your subscription even when you're on the go.
Of course, for the tech-resistant, Rosetta Stone is still a great option. Boasting a strong track record and a legion of devotees, it's ideal for someone willing to put in the time -- business travelers, for example, who might listen to lessons on the road. But the gold standard of at-home language learning doesn't come cheap: the complete five-level course goes for $499.