The ubiquity of translation software – which nowadays can even (roughly) translate conversations as you speak on your mobile – might make today seem like a good time to be a monoglot. But ropey translation is no way to get to know a culture. Instead, you should look at your mobile the other way around: as a way to supercharge your foreign-language learning.
For the beginning language learner, there are no miraculous ways around learning grammar and vocabulary. Get a decent textbook (the “Colloquial” and “Teach Yourself” series are decent) to explain the grammar in English. But learning to speak means being able to call to mind rules and vocabulary in an instant. This, in turn, means practice, and this is where your phone comes in, making it quick, convenient and even fun.
Duolingo is a free all-in-one package, and will get you going. If ready to commit, Babel is a cheap and high-quality subscription that helpfully explains grammar in the teaching. Rosetta Stone, much marketed, now offers a competitive subscription price, but its approach of teaching through pictures, without ever using the learner’s native language, is best kept for easy European languages. Memrise, with many free courses, is brilliant for vocabulary, and even some elements of grammar. It is based on the science of spaced repetition: words are re-introduced at lengthening intervals in flashcard-style exercises. When you get one wrong, the length between repetitions is shortened again, before gradually lengthening. (If you can find them, use the Memrise courses that have audio: when you hear and see the word simultaneously, each reinforces the other – and the audio will train you out of pronouncing the words as though they were English much faster.)
Next comes that intermediate stage, when it’s time to grapple with the language as used by natives. If learning Spanish, French, Italian or German, try “News in Slow Spanish” (etc), a subscription service with weekly news broadcasts in realistic language, but read at a slower clip. Then find a good podcast made for native speakers, and slow it down for that first listen. (Apple’s podcast app only slows down to a too-slow 50% speed; try PocketCasts for an app that will slow you down to a just-right 70%-90%.) YouTube videos can also be watched at 75% speed. Watch or listen slowed down a few times, then again at full speed. Take it in short chunks: much better to learn one minute of audio perfectly than five minutes with poor comprehension.
Read newspapers online, especially about familiar topics: you’ll guess new words and phrases easily. If you’re stumped on a word, use your phone’s built-in tools: on the iPhone, for example, go to Settings and download, say, the Italian-English or Italian-only dictionary once. Then, in any app with Italian text, highlight a word and select “Look Up”. On an Android phone, download Google Translate, and set it to be able to translate any highlighted text in any other app. When you translate something, try to make a note of it in a separate flashcard app (there are many free ones). Go over the cards at the end of each day, remembering the context in which you learned the word. Say it aloud, preferably in a sentence like the one you encountered it in.
When you’re ready to talk, find a co-operative native speaker. One easy way is through Italki, a social network which will help you find both trained teachers and more informal “tutors”: both can be inexpensive, the latter especially so, and this unstructured but guided conversation practice is exactly what the intermediate learner needs. (Use good headphones, and preferably also a dedicated microphone, for these Skype and Facetime sessions. A foreign language is hard enough without garbled audio.) Just four or five hours of one-on-one practice will make a huge difference; schedule one a week (be consistent) and within a few months, you’ll be far readier to put the learning tools away and face those first, unscripted face-to-face situations.