Lost in translation? Here’s help to find your way.


How’s your Papiamentu these days?

If you’ve got no idea what I’m talking about, no worries. Two minutes before I wrote that line, I couldn’t have told you that Papiamentu is a Creole dialect spoken in Aruba. But now I’ve heard sound clips of phrases in that language courtesy of Omniglot.com, which is at once a terrific language learning tool and one of my favorite word geek time-wasters.

The site is a trove of useful—and, by design, useless—phrases in all sorts of languages. In almost no time, it taught me to say good morning, good afternoon, good evening, goodnight, thank you, and “Do you speak English?” in Greek. Omniglot won’t make you fluent, but when I gave my new Greek vocabulary a trial run in a conversation with a hotel manager in Athens, he said my pronunciation was perfect.

It’s also the place to learn phrases that you’re not going to need unless your life is very different from mine. Or pretty much anyone else’s. Things like, “My aunt hates cheese, but she plays saxophone quite well” in Serbian. Or, “Excuse me, miss, there’s a duck on your head” in Indonesian. Or, “Clean my boots at once!” in Swahili. Although who among us wouldn’t want, while strolling the charming cobblestoned streets of Gamla Stan in Stockholm, to be equipped to cry out, “The giant crayfishes are attempting to conquer the Earth!” in Swedish?

But let’s return to more practical matters.

In the world of digital foreign language support, rule one is: don’t use online translators unless your goal is comedy, embarrassment, or a combination of the two. If you really need a translation, you need a skilled translator, and so far, at least, those come only in human form. But there are many excellent resources available on the web for multilingual learning. In addition to Omniglot, some of my favorites include:

Verbix, “an independent non-profit organization that aims to promote and protect linguistic diversity.” If you’re writing in your second (or third, or…) language and get stuck on the conjugation of an irregular verb in a tricky or little-used tense, the Verbix online verb conjugator will come to your rescue.

YourDictionary.com is a massive collection of online dictionaries in languages from Abenaki to Zulu. Some of the resources are straightforward single or dual-language dictionaries—not just the familiar English-French variety, but Italian-Hungarian, Russian-German, and so forth. But others take the linguistic roads less traveled: poke around the site, and you’ll find a Slavic etymological dictionary, a Portuguese glossary of Judaism, and a Sardinian food glossary. Not to mention the French lexicon of golf terms. Yes, there’s time-waster potential here, too, but also no shortage of more practical language support.

As Spanish is my second language, it’s the focus of my foreign-language bookmarks, which include the Real Academia Española online dictionary; the dictionary of Latin American slang Jergas de habla hispana; and Holt, Rinehart and Winston’s Spanish-language world atlas, a good quick resource for checking place-name spelling in Spanish.

These resources may not make you bilingual. But if you love language, they’ll show you a good time—and help you bridge communications gaps any time you venture into unfamiliar territory.

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