There is an argument, put forward notably of late by my FT colleague Simon Kuper, that for native English speakers, learning languages to any level below near fluency has become a waste of time, thanks to a combination of smartphone language apps such as Google Translate and the evolution of English as a near-global language.
Yet so far as apps are concerned there are negatives. They rely on WiFi or data, which even when you have it is often patchy, slow or expensive. With apps, there is also the suspicion – not unfounded – that every phrase you utter at them is cemented forever into your online history.
Enter the ili, an elegant travel translation gadget from Japan whose virtue is its absolute simplicity. Hanging from a handy neck strap, it works completely offline, relying on its own memory banks, so translation is both instant and private. Sitting at my desk testing it, I just said, “I am planning to rob a bank at 7am tomorrow”, which it was able to translate into Japanese, Chinese and Spanish without alerting the internet to my criminal intentions. You’ll note its slightly quirky and select choice of languages, but there are plans to add more and the device can be connected to your PC or Mac to update.
The ili provides one-way translation only, so you are reliant on people to respond by gesture or the odd word of English. But we’re talking about going on holiday here, not conducting a multilingual business meeting. It is made to handle only common phrases travellers need (“Where is the bus station?”, “I need to buy some paracetamol… now”). However, it constantly surprises by what it can do – my bank-robbing phrase is, for instance, hardly everyday parlance.