Review: Hello Pal

Mobile devices have proved to be excellent devices to learn a new language, especially on the go. Always with you, always connected to the internet, our phones have become more valuable as educational resources than any language learning guide or pocket phrasebook ever was.

However, learning a language — and, crucially, remaining motivated to continue learning — on your own can be extremely difficult. It’s much easier to stop than it is to persevere and not having someone to tutor you and guide you through the process can reduce the speed at which you can learn.

Hello Pal is an app that aims to combat this by making language learning mobile, conversational and contextual. A chat app at heart, Hello Pal can get you talking in the desired language immediately and help you better understand the meaning the words you are saying with its intelligent translation tools.

hello pal screens

When you first open Hello Pal, you’ll need to set up an account. This can be done by connecting your Facebook or Google+ account — which helps you identify friends also using the app — or by signing up with an email address. During set up, you declare which languages you speak and which languages you wish to learn. This info helps to recommend you “Pals” who are either native speakers of the language you want to learn or are also wanting to learn to speak in that tongue. I feel like the app also asks for a lot of other personal info to flesh out your profile — like birthday, occupation, city, interests — which are not necessary, but perhaps help identify good chat matches. Fortunately this stuff is optional, so you don’t have to add it if you do not want.

Once connected with some Pals, you can begin chatting. This is where Hello Pal excels. Within a couple of minutes, I was able to chat to people of varying nationalities in languages I had never spoken before, and the tools aiding our conversations honestly made this a breeze.

There are a few ways to converse, all integrated into your message feed with another user. Text Chat allows you to freely type — in your own language or a learned one. This allows you to practice the language you are learning or, even better, type something you wish to say and use the excellent translation function to turn it into the desired language. I tested this translation tool with phrases in a foreign language I know well enough and the resultant output was perfect. This translation is available in a whole host of languages too and, while I can’t vouch for the accuracy of all languages, I would hope they are just as good as the ones I could test out.

There’s also Voice Chat which allows you to speak freely in any language, practicing out loud. Like Text Chat, you can type first and get an accurate translation but this time you can record your voice and send the clip itself to the recipient. The voice function does have a momentary delay that takes a little adapting to — at first I was recording voice clips where the first syllable was cut off — but you can listen back to any recorded clip before confirming/re-recording and sending.

hello pal screens 2

Lastly, there’s Phrasebook. For me, this is the best way to chat in Hello Pal as it provides contextual phrases and conversation starters in order to begin and maintain a conversation. Everything from basic statements and questions, to life and travel, ways to deliver good and bad news and more, are covered. With Phrasebook you are given translations (as well as literal translations), and both accurate- and reduced-speed pronunciation to help you really get to grips with the words you are saying. Unfortunately, Phrasebooks are only available in a few languages, though — English, Chinese (Mandarin), Japanese, French, plus Korean and Spanish (in beta). Others are said be coming soon, including a number of new ‘mini-phrasebooks’ for the aforementioned language plus ones for German, Italian, Portuguese, Thai, Hindi and Arabic, I hope they are as this would make Hello Pal even more valuable as a resource.

It takes some time to really get into chatting in these ways. At first, you might feel like you are simply parroting words and phrases, but over time you begin to pick up some of these expressions. Using Hello Pal to truly learn a language will still take some self-motivation, but all of the language information is there for you to learn from and you have the added bonus of actually communicating with another person.

The UI of Hello Pal is a little confusing at first. There are lots of buttons and scrolling menus that can be a little overbearing at times. I’d definitely recommend watching the beginners’ tutorial that is shown during setup and Hello Pal has a number of other tips on its YouTube channel that are worth checking out. Once you’re up to speed, actually using Hello Pall to chat to other users is as easy as using any other IM app. There are features like user blocking, do not disturb hours, picture messaging and more that you’d expect. Messages do not have to be in real-time meaning you can chat and respond in your own time. There’s a sizeable user-base too, meaning you can always find someone to chat to.

While the overall experience is well designed and highly-polished, I have encountered a couple of bugs along the way. Fortunately, Hello Pal’s development team is very active and updates the app quickly (twice, in fact, during my testing period).

Whether Hello Pal will be enough to teach you a new language from scratch will depend on your own desire and capacity to learn. From using the app for a good period of time, I feel Hello Pal is the equivalent of a foreign pen pal, reinvented for the modern age.

Check out Hello Pal on Google Play where it can be downloaded for free.

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