Pocket Language Guides, Are They Helpful?

Pocket Language Guides

There is an abundance of Pocket Language Guides or phrasebooks as they are called, but are the necessary or even useful? And if so, which one is the best one for me to get?

Traveling is a lot like school, particularly college, the more you put into it the more you will get back. I cannot count the number of times my traveling experiences have been improved by just attempting to speak the local language. We can consistently see the expressions of the people we are interacting with change or lighten when we just put the most basic effort in to communicate with them on their terms. In my travel experience these phrasebooks are not only useful, they are necessary for someone that doesn’t speak the local dialect to even begin to get the most out of their travel experience.

There is quite the variety of phrasebooks, particularly in languages like French and Spanish, with each of them having varying degrees of usefulness. In the past my go to guides have been from Lonely Planet based on their ultra-helpful front and back inside covers and color coding organizational system. The question is am I using the best one out there. So for that I setup a little experiment pitting the 3 biggest players against each other, Berlitz, Lonely Planet and Rick Steves. I choose French as my language and took some pictures of similar pages in each book, while removing any identifying marks, and asked for some native speakers opinions on the content. Below is the consensus of the results:

Berlitz:

Formal, but not to formal and spot on pronunciation assistance best sums up Berlitz’s entry. The winner for pronunciation should come as no revelation as Berlitz is the only language company in the group. Started by Maximilian Berlitz in 1878 because he was in need of an assistant French instructor; crazily enough. Although a bit of disappoint surrounded the fact that Berlitz books don’t have a second quick help section on the back cover. Keep in mind though, if you are known to have particular difficulty with foreign languages Berlitz books will give you that extra assistance in the pronunciation department.

Inside Front Cover of Berlitz Phrase Book.

Inside Front Cover of Berlitz Phrase Book.

Lonely Planet:

Very formal and very basic where the most common terms used to describe Lonely Planet’s book. “When you are a guest formal is the way to go” and “The color coded organizational system was easy to use”; were two of the quotes from my testers. Lonely Planet was started by a husband and wife in the 1970’s with a single self-published book and is now the largest travel guide publisher in the world. Unsurprisingly they have more languages covered than any other publisher.

Inside Front Cover of Lonely Planet Phrasebook.

Inside Front Cover of Lonely Planet Phrasebook.

Inside Back Cover of Lonely Planet Phrasebook.

Inside Back Cover of Lonely Planet Phrasebook.

Rick Steves:

Unanimously his guide was chosen as the best example of how locals would talk. Also it was pointed out that he made note of gender which certainly can be helpful, especially when looking for a toilet. His guides are not as colorful as the others but it remains intuitively organized. Rick Steves didn’t follow the typical course when he started his travel service business and it has garnered him a near cult following. He only recently started to create phrase books, so his selection of languages is limited, but expanding.

Inside Front Cover of Rick Steves Phrase Book.

Inside Front Cover of Rick Steves Phrase Book.

Inside Back Cover of Rick Steves Phrase Book.

Inside Back Cover of Rick Steves Phrase Book.

What about alternatives?

If you are wondering why I am still using a book when I could just pull up some snazzy app on my phone, to you I say “Roaming Data”. The holy grail of phone charges is International Roaming Data; it is cheaper to call Uzbekistan from a payphone for 2 hours then to use a MB of data in France. Plus there is the added benefit of the appearance of attempting to look something up in a book labeled “French”, as opposed to give the impression to be rudely playing with one’s phone.

If you are looking for an app to use to help you prep for a trip I highly recommend Duolingo available for Android, iOS and Windows Phone, as well as in a browser. On top of all that it is free!

The Verdict:

A Rick Steves phrase book is the way to go if you want to impress the locals with your linguistic skills. If you happen to be headed to a destination that is not covered yet by the Rick Steves library, don’t stress it too much. None of the books tested where listed as inaccurate or misleading.

Do you use Phrase Books? What has your travel experience been when you attempt to speak the local language? 

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