Being able to connect with people in their own language might be the most underrated tool in the travel photographer’s camera bag.
Chinese is a language you gotta learn with your ears.
I’m going to assume you’re after the basics, and that you don’t need industry jargon. You probably do want to know how to find the toilet, learn to say “thanks” and get yourself from A to B.
Text-only options are mostly useless for travelers. Because – unless you already know how to properly pronounce the sounds of the language – folks won’t be able to understand you. The sounds required in Chinese are very different to English.
Whatever you pick, make sure you learn with your ears. Get something that focuses on listening and speaking.
There’s an app for that, etc
Try Google Translate. You can download the offline Chinese pack. It is free and includes OCR – just point your phone’s camera at text for a translation. Overall, the app is accurate enough for travel basics.
Chinese Skill is a pretty fun app that uses games to help you get started with Chinese. It’s a good way to pass time on a long-haul flight.
Pleco is the gold standard among bilingual dictionary and translation apps. It’s packed with tools and, for serious students, this is the one to get. For most visitors it is probably overkill.
Find a fixer
Throwing around words from the dictionary will only get you so far. For a few visiting photographers, it will be worth the cost to hire a professional translator. If you need to arrange permits or hire models – or if you’re just in a hurry to solve a logistical puzzle – hire help.
Beyond the basics
ChinesePod proved to the long-suffering students of Chinese that learning the language didn’t have to be boring. These guys started a podcast many years ago and never looked back. Now, you can grab the audio and video lessons via their app. Use this if you need to communicate more than the average tourist.
Want to interpret China’s capital from a photographer’s perspective? Read The Photographers Field Guide to Beijing. It isfree.