North Korean won and economic calculation

North Korean wonA friend of mine recently sent me this Reuters article by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson about the illegal but tolerated market economy behind North Korea’s own “iron curtain.” Among a few of the topics covered in the article (and the book by the same authors) they reveal several of the North Korean government’s attempts to restrict voluntary trade in North Korea via manipulations of the won (KPW) currency. What I found interesting was the discrepancy between the official government-set exchange rate (only 96 KPW per 1 USD as of the time the article was published) and the market exchange rate (closer to 8,000 KPW per USD, again, as of the date the article was published).

Another case, according to the authors, involved the government canceling the last two zeros of every bank note. The government did this by requiring citizens to trade their 1,000 won notes, for example, for 10 won notes. North Koreans were allowed only one week to make the trade. One of the catches was that the government would only exchange a maximum of 100,000 won (about $30-40 at the time). The result? The savings of North Korean people were destroyed instantaneously. Remaining monetary notes stored away in savings became worthless because by law, no merchants would be allowed to accept them. For a North Korean to demand that the government trade in more than the 100,000 won maximum would likely result in that individual being subjected to intense questioning about any black market activities he or she may be involved in. “Where did you get this extra money?! You must be doing something illegal! Off to the labor camps for you!”

Obviously, making any rational economic calculation with these money prices is difficult to say the least. And in an oppressive regime that does everything it can to discourage market activity, that almost seems to be the government’s intention. Under these conditions, if there is any rational economic calculation at all it is only thanks to the black market! If people cannot rely on money to not lose its value drastically overnight, they will try to sell it as soon as possible for other currencies, consumer goods, etc. It is for this reason, that North Korean people (illegally) trade US dollars and Chinese yuan on the black market. Similarly, when people notice the discrepancy between government-set exchange rates (which are only government attempts to conceal just how bad inflation is) and market exchange rates, they will choose to buy and sell at market rates — not government-set rates.

Related note: Inflation also has a strong tendency to encourage spending and consumption over saving. During hyperinflation in Brazil in the 1980s and early 1990s, Brazilians frequently ran to the markets to sell their money (by buying goods and services) as soon as they received their paychecks. Holding onto their money for even an extra day often meant that their money’s buying power decreased dramatically. The increase in demand and seller expectations that demand would continue pushed prices up even further.

The Reuters article gives an example of a basketball for sale at a shop in Pyongyang for 46,000 won. At 96 KPW to 1 USD, the price of the basketball is US$479.17. Obviously, nobody pays this amount of money for basketballs under normal circumstances in any country. Now, by contrast, if the market rate is about 8,000 KPW for 1 USD, we are only talking about US$5.75. But even at this price, one would imagine that most poverty-stricken North Koreans without political connections would prefer instead to use their money to purchase goods and services that are more essential to maintaining human life. To switch from economics to psychology for a moment, I’m referring to goods and services that are able to serve functions further to the bottom of the triangle in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (i.e. physiological needs such as water and food).

My curiosity led me to check XE.com to check the exchange rate between KPW and USD. Here below was the rate shown on 16 April, 2015. I updated the page 2 hours later, and the rate was still exactly the same. For any other currency (belonging to nation states with more formalized market economies), XE.com is able to provide updated rates as they fluctuate throughout the day. This is the relevant portion of the screenshot I took from the page on that date:

XE.com's exchange rate for North Korean wan (KPW) on 16 April, 2015

 

 

 

Today, two weeks after getting the above exchange rate, XE.com reports it to be 124.753 KPW for 1 USD. (That’s “one hundred twenty-four point seven five three” for my friends from countries that have the opposite usage for commas and periods than that of the United States — not “one hundred twenty-four thousand seven hundred fifty-three”). My guess is that XE.com is reporting North Korean government-announced exchange rates since 124 to 1 USD doesn’t seem too high relative to exchange rates with many other countries.

I also checked the rate using “Currency Converter HD” iPhone app, which is the app I rely on for all other currencies as I travel, and found this very different exchange rate. Today again, two weeks after I first checked and finally got around to writing this blog post, the app still says that 1 USD is valued at 900 KPW. I also find it difficult to believe that the going exchange rate is perfectly divisible by 100!

Currency Converter HD for iPhone's exchange rate for North Korean wan (KPW) on 16 April, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As of 1 May, 2015, Google reports the same exchange rate as my iPhone app:

Google's exchange rate for North Korean wan (KPW) on 1 May, 2015

So what is the truth? Is the going market rate in North Korea for 1 USD closer to 96 KPW? 900 KPW? 8,000 KPW? It’s not easy to know.

 

More on economic calculation:

See also:

Common word choice differences between English of the US and Malaysia

I’ve been traveling to Malaysia frequently for the past few years and have compiled a short list of some of the most common differences in words and phrases between that of non-native speakers of English (mostly ethnic Chinese) and native speakers of the United States. I recently read the list off to a Malaysian friend of mine. He and I had a good laugh about it, and he seemed to think they were accurate.

I will point out that I have noticed many (or all) of these differences in other countries of the ASEAN community (Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, for example) – also predominantly from ethnic Chinese. However, as I have spent more time in Malaysia than the others, I will say that I can’t confirm if the differences in the list below are true for all countries outside Malaysia (even among ethnic Chinese).

Lastly, the reason I mention that I’ve noticed these word differences among primarily ethnic Chinese is that had I spent the majority of my time with the ethnic Malays instead, for example, I would likely be hearing different word choices in their spoken English. In other words, the Bahasa Malaysia language is structured one way, and Chinese dialects are structured in their own respective ways. This affects how foreign languages (English, in this case) are spoken and the common mistakes that are made.

I asked Nick Cogan of The Chirco Group to provide some insight on the various Chinese dialects and how this affects how English is spoken as a foreign language. Nick is an old friend of mine. He holds an MA in linguistics, is fluent in Mandarin and has spent more than 6 years in China. This was his reply:

Some [Chinese] dialects are actually different languages; some are just dialects but different enough that each group can, in fact, have different difficulties in English language pronunciation. For example, F and H sounds are understood as interchangeable in one dialect and L and N are interchangeable in another.

Now I will explain how the first language affects which mistakes are made in foreign languages by using Spanish and Portuguese. When native speakers of Spanish are speaking English, they often say things like, “Would you like to take a coffee?”. By contrast, native speakers of English say “have” or “drink” in lieu of “take.” The reason for this common mistake is that for drinking coffee and alcohol, Spanish uses the verb “tomar” (to take) instead of “beber” (to drink). So the verb “take” is often used since the Spanish speaker is doing a literal interpretation from Spanish to English. To throw in yet another twist, Brazilian Portuguese uses tomar and beber more loosely than Spanish does. So a Brazilian would likely ask someone in Portuguese “Você bebe?” (instead of “Você toma?”) to ask someone if they drink alcohol. So when a Brazilian is speaking English and asks someone the same question, s/he might correctly say “Do you drink?” (instead of “Do you take?”) since the literal interpretation from Brazilian Portuguese is closer to English than Spanish.

Much of Peninsular Malaysia was a part of British Malaya so it can only be expected that many of the words would be closer to British than to American English. I showed the table below to Dr. Richard Rhodes, a University of California, Berkeley professor of linguistics, and he confirmed this. He pointed out that

some of these usages are straight British, like petrol, lift, car park, holiday, and, of course, napkin means something quite different, too. The rest are the kinds of things that arise in language contact situations.

I hope you enjoy the list. I enjoyed compiling them through my many conversations in Malaysia.

Malaysia United States
Petrol Gas
I need to put petrol in the car. I need to put gas in the car.
Lift Elevator
Take the lift to the second floor. Take the elevator to the second floor.
(In American English, the word “lift” is perfectly acceptable in place of elevator. The point I intend to stress here is that “elevator” doesn’t appear to be used at all, but everyone understands it).
Car park Parking lot
The car is in the car park. The car is in the parking lot.
Take Eat/drink
Did you take your breakfast?
Did you take your coffee?
Did you eat your breakfast?
Did you drink your coffee?
Is it? Oh yeah? / Really? 
(This is usually used to confirm that something that the other speaker has said is true).
Can. Yes / No problem / It’s OK. / [I/you/we, etc.] can/may. 
[In response to a request for permission, for example…]
Can.
[In response to a request for permission, for example…]
Yes, we can. No problem.
…for holiday …on/for vacation
Did you go to Japan for holiday? Did you go to Japan on/for vacation?
 Meat Beef 
(Meat in this sense refers specifically to beef. In American English, chicken can be meat; pork can be meat, etc. I have also noticed that native speakers of various languages of the Middle East refer to beef as “meat”).
Last time Before
Last time I sell you these goods, I need your signature. Before I sell you these goods, I need your signature.
Tissue Napkin 
(Even at the dinner table in Malaysia, napkins are referred to as “tissues”). (In American English, “tissues” usually refer to something you blow your nose with).
Never mind It’s alright / It’s OK / That’s OK, etc.
[In response to a “thank you,” for example…] Never mind. You’re welcome! [In response to a “thank you,” for example..] It’s alright. You’re welcome!
Name card Business card
Here is my name card. Here is my business card.
Intercom  Phone
I called you on the intercom. I called you on the phone.
Aircon Air conditioning
We can turn on the aircon if you are hot. We can turn on the air conditioning if you are hot.
Specs Glasses
You need specs to help you see.
(This borrows from the word “spectacles.”)
You need glasses to help you see.
Because why… Because… / And that’s why…
We decided not to buy because why the price is too high.
The price is too high because why we decided not to buy.
We decided not to buy because the price is too high.
The price is too high, and that’s why we decided not to buy.
I don’t think so… I don’t think…
I don’t think so the mailman came today I don’t think the mailman came today.

 

See also:

A tribute to a man I never met

Peter_O'Toole_in_Lawrence_of_ArabiaToday is a sad day indeed. Today I learned that my favorite actor – Peter O’Toole and star of my favorite movie – Lawrence of Arabia – passed away just two days ago. Lawrence of Arabia had such an impact on me when I saw it for the first time in 2000 as a high school senior. I was an 18-year old kid, ready for adventure and to see the world. I could not have been introduced to this movie at a more influential period of my life.  Lawrence believed (and O’Toole accurately enacted) that “for some men nothing is written unless they write it.”

We live in an age of mass social media, so I might as well leave you with two quick YouTube videos. I could provide here so many of the amazing scenes from the movie, but I am going to provide the one with dialog that best portrays my personal philosophy in life. The conversation is with Lawrence and his friend Sherif Ali.

The second video is not part of the movie. I share this video to demonstrate (to those that have not yet seen it) what a classy son of a bitch Peter O’Toole really was. Who else rides in on a camel on the Late Show with David Letterman while smoking cigarette with a long holder? Only Peter O’Toole.

Rest in peace, Peter O’Toole. You will be missed.

How to acquire fluency in a foreign language as an adult

I have been asked many times, “What is the best way for me to learn a foreign language?” Or sometimes the question is presented in another manner: “Will Rosetta Stone software help me become fluent in Spanish/Mandarin/Tagalog, etc.?” I’ve answered these questions so many times that I will just write my answer here. I am by no means a linguist with expertise in foreign language acquisition. My answer, therefore, is more personal and practical than it is theoretical. I also focus on adult learning in this article because children generally have the wonderful advantage of learning foreign languages by simply growing up in a home in which at least one of the parents speaks the foreign language, growing up abroad where the parents are employed, or attending an international school with classes taught in the foreign language from a very early age. Few children tell themselves “I am going to learn Language X” without parental guidance and actually go through with the necessary steps to achieve fluency.

Note: The manner in which I’ve written this article assumes that your first language is English – only because I’ve written the article in English. If your first language is something other than English, just simply replace the word “English” throughout this article for your first language, and the learning methods described here will apply to you equally.

So what’s my key recommendation for learning a foreign language? Do the best with what you have based on your goal. Simple – right? I address both aspects of this answer (1. Doing the best with what you have, and 2. Orienting your learning toward achieving your particular goal) in the next two sections.

Doing the best with what you have

There is by no means one single way to learn a foreign language, and the method you choose to learn a language is obviously limited to the resources you have. For example, you may not have $300+ for Rosetta Stone software or $20,000+ for a yearlong study abroad or $600+ for a semester of learning at a local college or university. Or maybe you have the money but are married with children that are still living in the home, and moving to another country is out of the question.

But let’s say that you do have sufficient resources. Let’s say you can take a year off from life and participate in a study abroad program recognized by your home university, or you can just move away and teach English in the country where the language you want to learn is spoken. My approach is full immersion.

Party practicing
When I determined almost a decade ago that I was going to learn Spanish I went all out. I was a 22-year old kid, fresh out of the Air Force and on my way to college. I knew I was going to study abroad somewhere in South America, but I was required by my home university to actually attend classes at the local institution before studying abroad. How to begin? I signed up for Spanish classes immediately. I asked around and found a local female salsa instructor; I began lessons right away and attended weekly. (For the record, I can impress non-Hispanics, but Hispanics quickly identify me as “just another gringo.” Dancing is not my thing, and that’s just fine with me).

I also frequented the Mexican restaurants in the area and forced myself to converse in Spanish with everyone. As my university had a large Bolivian student body, I made friends with the Bolivians. And by the way, college parties – when consisting of primarily native speakers of the language you want to learn – are the best way to practice foreign languages when you’re stuck in an English-speaking country. When you drink alcohol, you don’t mind making mistakes. When others drink, they’re even friendlier than they might be otherwise and are more tolerant of your mistakes.

If you get tired of speaking with a particular person or the person gets tired of speaking with you, you can just strike up another conversation with someone else! If you attend parties that are comprised of exclusively native speakers of the foreign language you want to learn and you are unable to converse in the beginning, stick with it! I can’t tell you how many times I stood around looking like a damn fool until I finally got my Spanish up to a working level. When they called me “gringo” I just laughed, stayed friendly and kept speaking (bad) Spanish. As a happily-married man, I don’t do college parties anymore (thank goodness), but having subjected myself to so many situations that were so far outside my element in so many countries since that time, I can do formal business dinners throughout East Asia, or negotiate a deal in the Middle East or attend a funeral in Ethiopia (all real examples), and feel at ease – whether or not I speak any of the local languages. So get out of your comfort zone! Comfort comes from either: 1. keeping yourself closed off from new experiences, or 2. constantly forcing yourself to adapt to new experiences. I find the latter to be so much more rewarding.

Walking dictionaries
Even better still than “party practicing” is obtaining a walking dictionary. My academic advisor in college told me that when he was studying abroad in Paris during the early days of the Vietnam War, a US Army officer who had been granted leave to study in Paris referred to local girlfriends (and native French speakers) as “walking dictionaries.” So I have named this section after that. The best walking dictionaries are native speakers of the language that you want to learn. It is not enough that the person speaks the language fluently. If they are not a native speaker and the dominant common language between the two of you is not the language you want to learn, you will find yourself speaking the dominant common language almost exclusively. For example, let’s say that you want to learn Spanish. If English is your first language and you are dating a Brazilian – a native Portuguese speaker – that happens to also be fluent in Spanish and English, and the dominant common language between the two of you is English, then you both are probably going to find yourself speaking English the majority of the time – not Spanish.

Maybe you can’t control who you fall in love with, but you can at least control who you surround yourself with. So if you surround yourself with native speakers of the language you want to learn, you just might find love within that pool of people and better your foreign language ability simultaneously. Nothing wrong with that!

Watching movies
Foreign language students often have the debate: Which is better for learning? Watching foreign films (spoken in the foreign language) with English subtitles, subtitles of the same foreign language, or no subtitles at all? My answer: They’re all great for different reasons!

Here is what watching movies in each of the following ways does for your learning:

  • Spoken in the foreign language and English subtitles – Helps you practice your listening but with a little assistance. This is like starting to ride a bike in the beginning with training wheels. No problem. It’s still great learning!
  • Spoken in the foreign language and subtitles in that same foreign language – Helps you practice listening while reinforcing grammar, vocabulary and spelling.
  • Spoken in the foreign language and no subtitles at all – Helps you practice your listening. This gives you the most realistic learning environment, since obviously people don’t have subtitles when they speak in real life.

Of course there are other ways to learn foreign languages by watching movies:

  • Spoken in one foreign language and subtitles in another foreign language – As an English speaker, watching a Brazilian movies spoken in Portuguese but with Spanish subtitles can also help you learn Spanish. The practice is great, but if you want to focus on learning Portuguese, for example, it can be distracting.
  • Spoken in English and subtitles in the foreign language – This is fine! Assuming the subtitles are translated well, this reinforces grammar, vocabulary and spelling. It obviously lacks listening practice but is still good as long as you don’t ignore the subtitles.

Living abroad
Let me be perfectly clear: There is no substitute to living in the country of the language you want to learn; period. Living abroad gives you constant intense practice in all categories of learning. If you can live (or at least travel) abroad, you want to make sure that you do as many different kinds of things as possible. The wider the variety of activities you participate in, the wider variety of vocabulary you will acquire.

If you don’t accept a friend’s invitation to go fishing, necessity is unlikely to force you to learn words and phrases like: to catch a fish, bait, worm, hook, fishing pole, and codfish. Similarly, if you don’t study at a school of some sort, necessity is unlikely to force you to learn words and phrases like: to enroll in a class, to do homework, classmate, chalkboard, and notebook. And if you pass up the opportunity to watch a sports game, necessity is unlikely to force you to learn words and phrases like: to score a goal, stadium, ball, foul, and so on. You get the point. To maximize your experience, do as wide a variety of things as possible. Simply going to the foreign country without engaging in many activities will only limit your learning.

If you have the opportunity to take classes while abroad, know that taking classes helps you learn to speak on an educated level. You are forced to learn grammar rules and verb conjugations, keep up with a classroom pace, do homework and pass exams, etc. Plus a teacher corrects your mistakes. If you live in an English-speaking country and you are taking Russian classes, that’s great. But obviously, taking Russian classes in Russia is unbeatable.

Immersing yourself without living abroad
If you can’t move abroad for a season of your life (or permanently), you can do the next best thing. In addition to frequenting ethnic restaurants, obtaining a walking dictionary, participating in cultural events (like salsa lessons), you can do some of the following:

  • Set your Gmail/Yahoo!/Hotmail email and Facebook user interface to the language you want to learn. Each of these online services offers the option to change to all major languages and more.
  • Download your internet browsers (Google Chrome, MS Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, etc.) in the language.
  • Set your cellphone to the desired foreign language. If the language you wish to learn is not available, consider setting it to a similar language. For example, if Slovak isn’t available, set it to Czech. If Dutch isn’t available, set it to German, and so on.

At this point in my life, I no longer actively study Spanish, but my cellphone bill still arrives every month in Spanish – something that I arranged with my cellphone carrier when I was a college student. When I need to review my bill, I catch myself thinking in Spanish.

The point is to surround yourself with the language as much as possible so that you are forced to think in the language as much as possible. If you don’t force yourself to think in the foreign language by an exhaustive full immersion approach, you will never acquire fluency.

Orienting your learning toward achieving the goal

Obviously not every person has the goal of becoming fluent in a foreign language for a whole host of reasons. Maybe you live in an English-speaking country but travel on business to China from time to time, or maybe you work with Arabic speakers from different countries and just want to learn to be able to converse on a basic level. That’s fine indeed! In this case, moving to another country to study abroad or teach English is far too much effort than what it is worth. Consider some of the other things I suggested: take a class or two at a local university; make friends with international students; get Rosetta Stone; buy a phrasebook and dictionary. You get the point.

Taking formal foreign language classes is important for learning the rules and to speak properly. Attending social parties, dating someone that natively speaks the foreign language, etc. is important for learning the vernacular (spoken language) – including slang. Computer programs like Rosetta Stone compliment all of these.

Personal confessions
When I conducted a yearlong study abroad in São Paulo in 2007, all my university classes (since day 1) were taught in Portuguese – for Brazilians, not for gringos like me, so I was forced to study intensely. In addition to university classes I had Portuguese language classes with other American gringos. I had never studied Portuguese before moving to Brazil, but luckily, I had three years of university Spanish classes behind me, which met the requirements for the study abroad program I participated in because of the similarities between the two languages.

But my first semester was less than an ideal learning environment. I lived with a well-educated gentleman that preferred to speak English all the time. As part of my study abroad program I also had many activities with other Americans. Remember what I said earlier about defaulting back to the dominant common language? Not surprisingly, the Americans, including me, spoke almost exclusively English with one another. Since I had moved to Brazil with one primary goal – to acquire fluency in the Portuguese language – before my second semester began I requested to be moved into another home. Luckily, my study abroad organization was able to accommodate me. I quickly moved in with an elderly woman. She couldn’t speak any English; she was an amazing, kind woman, and she could cook so well! So finally I was speaking Portuguese in the home. Secondly, I also determined that when the American students from my first semester had returned to the USA and the new ones came in, I was going to attend the Portuguese classes with them but not allow myself to make friends with them. This was a hard decision! I’m social! I like people! But I didn’t go to Brazil to make friends with Americans as much as I did to learn to acquire fluency in the Portuguese language. I knew if I simply explained to them that we could be friends but would have to only speak Portuguese, I would enjoy their company, accept invitations to hang out, and would be stuck in the same English-speaking trap as I was in my first semester. At the end of the first day of Portuguese class with them I just left. No introduction. I felt like a real asshole. But I wasn’t mean to anyone; I just didn’t socialize. Every day after class for the rest of the semester I did exactly the same thing. I almost exclusively surrounded myself with Brazilians, which is exactly what my mind needed to consistently think in Portuguese. I noted a couple of times that some of my American classmates viewed me as a snob for my behavior. It was tough to not explain myself, but doing so – I believed then and still do now – would have led to normal conversations, to great conversations, to friendship, then English speaking. So I held firm.

After finishing my year abroad I spoke with one of the fellow American study abroad students from my second semester over Facebook. He also stayed one year (and finished one semester after me). I was pleased to learn from him that he did exactly the same thing as I did for his second semester; he avoided the gringos! That’s what it takes to acquire fluency in a foreign language! I’m proud of him!

Another author’s perspective
Tim Ferriss correctly points out in his book The 4-Hour Workweek that it is possible to become conversationally fluent in three months. He suggests first looking at the most commonly spoken words of a foreign language and beginning with that. Tim’s list of the most commonly spoken and written words in the English language has been cached here.

Although I have never approached foreign language learning exactly in this manner per se, his point stands. When living in Japan during my days in the US Air Force, I quickly became able to speak Japanese on an upper-basic or lower-intermediate level by always asking the Japanese nationals that I worked with “How do you say ____ in Japanese.” I didn’t work off of a list of the most commonly spoken or written words and memorize those. Instead, I asked how to say words that I needed to say in order to survive in Japanese society. My goal was never to achieve fluency but rather to be enabled to go anywhere in Japan or do anything I needed to do without having the language barrier as a personal crutch. I did take one elementary-level Japanese class at a university; bought a Katakana workbook, Japanese dictionaries and phrasebook, and surrounded myself with Japanese speakers (including a “walking dictionary”). I could have achieved fluency in the language by doing all of this plus taking more university classes, but that wasn’t my goal. At that time the Air Force was keeping me busy enough.

Concluding remarks
So to conclude, there’s nothing that says that you have to study a language for the purpose of acquiring fluency. My suggested approach for you is to do as many of these things as you can – based on your particular goal.

Learning foreign languages develops your mind in so many ways. It helps you understand your own language better. And when combined with living abroad it helps you to challenge the world around you in ways that you never would otherwise. Just for the record, each language that you learn makes learning new languages even easier. After a while, you just get good at learning languages.

As for relearning forgotten languages – that’s fairly easy. Just go through your old notes, go back to the country where the language is spoken, and it comes back to you quickly. Case in point, my father never spoke French or any other language but English. His parents, however, used to speak French to each other in his presence when he was a young child. To this day, when I ask him “How do you say ____ in French?,” he replies “I don’t know!” But a couple of minutes later he comes back and says, “I really don’t know why I remember this, but I’m pretty sure you say ____. Why do I know that?!”

If you are young enough in life to enjoy many years of benefits from all the hard work required to learn new languages, I would highly suggest becoming fluent in at least 2-3 languages and beginning as soon as possible. Don’t become one of those nerds that try to impress people by learning dying or dead languages. Old Aramaic and Latin are about as worthless as Elvish and Klingon in my opinion. The modern, spoken break off languages from Aramaic and Latin, by contrast, can be highly useful as long as you put yourself into situations in which you can actually use them. It is no use spending thousands of hours of your life learning a valuable social skill if it never helps you make new friends that you would not otherwise be able to have, travel to new places that you would not otherwise been able to go, or live a life that you would not otherwise be able to live.

 

See also:
Why audiobooks can make your whole life better

Essential iPhone apps for international road warriors

“Work smarter, not harder.”
-Author unkown

For the very fortunate breed of travelers that finds him or herself in one country after another on a regular basis, it is essential to make the best use of technology in order to maximize efficiency. I have spent the past couple of years exploring the best iPhone apps to automate my life. For me, the apps listed here below are the bare minimum to keep my life as an international traveler moving smoothly.

 

Priority Pass

This app is only useful for paying customers of Priority Pass. Priority Pass is a company that allows its customers to use airport lounges around the world – no matter which airline they are flying on. If you fly to the same places all the time using the same airline, you might be better off paying the airline for access to its own lounges. However, if you find yourself flying on a multitude of airlines around the world and do not wish to spend your 8-hour layovers waiting at the gate or in a food court somewhere, you will want Priority Pass. Trust me; it’s beautiful.

With the Priority Pass app, you can push the “Find Nearest Lounge” button, and the app uses your iPhone’s GPS to find the lounges that you have access to at the particular airport that you are at. I’ve been in situations in which I found myself at smaller regional airports in countries like Brazil and China. It didn’t matter! Priority Pass still had lounges for me to use in those airports!

Here is a link to 10% off your first year of Priority Pass – no matter which membership plan you choose.

 

CultureGPS Professional

If you are among the rare breed of culture warriors out there, you should already be aware of Professor Geert Hofstede’s work on the dimensions of national cultures. For international businessmen and businesswomen, the Hofstede index is an indispensable resource. It breaks down cultures of many countries around the world into the following dimensions: Power Distance Index (PDI), Individualism versus Collectivism (IDV), Masculinity versus Femininity (MAS), Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) and Long-Term Avoidance (LTO). Newer dimensions added to the Hofstede index (not in this app, unfortunately) are: Pragmatic versus Normative (PRA) and Indulgence versus Restraint (IND).

Let’s say, for example, that you are an account manager for the company your work for and will be meeting with a new buyer of your company’s product in Country-X for the first time. The purpose of the meeting is to negotiate future terms between both companies. If Country-X happens to score high on Hofstede’s Power Distance Index (PDI) dimension, you can expect that it is less likely that you will have access to the owner or other high-level decision-makers of the foreign company (since you are an account manager – a lower position than an owner in corporate hierarchy). This is cultural intelligence at its finest. If you frequently travel to a diverse range of countries (geographically, linguistically, ethnically, religiously) I highly recommend this app!

There are many books that I could also recommend here that have been instrumental in my personal development in cultural intelligence, but if I had to recommend only three they would be the three below. In some ways they overlap with information, however, the countries they cover vary. So if you travel just about everywhere you will find it beneficial to keep all three in your library. The first two books below dedicate each individual chapter to the cultural and business practices of specific countries (every chapter is a different country). The latter concentrates more on cultural and business practices of geographical clusters (Middle East and North Africa, for example) as well as provides specific information for a few key countries.

  1. Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands by Terri Morrison
  2. Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands, Sales and Marketing: The Essential Cultural Guide—From Presentations and Promotions to Communicating and Closing by Terri Morrison
  3. How to Negotiate Anything with Anyone Anywhere Around the World by Frank Acuff

 

The World Clock

I tried at least three of the world clock apps before falling in love with this one by Orlin Kolev. The World Clock is able to not only track the time zones in the individual cities of your choosing, but it even works with your Google Calendar.

Let’s say that on a particular date and time you have scheduled a conference call with a customer in Ghana, but on that date you will be in Bangkok, Thailand. With The World Clock you can enter the date and time that you told your customer in Ghana you would call him, and the app shows you what date and time the appointment will be in Bangkok. You can then choose to setup a Google Calendar event right from the app along with alert reminders so you don’t forget to actually make the call!

Note: While gathering the necessary links and information to produce this blog post I ran into a competing app that looks quite good called World Clock Pro.

 

Documents

Documents can open all of your Microsoft Word and Excel documents and allows you to edit them, organize them in folders, send them as email attachments, back them up on Dropbox and more. It can also open other major file formats, such as PDF. It’s simple. Without it, an iPhone is limited to the Notes app, which is as plain as Microsoft Notepad.

With this app I am able to work on the go.

 

 

 

Currency Converter HD

I experimented with two or three competing apps before choosing this one. The first one I tried was by XE, only because XE is popular in FOREX. Unfortunately, the XE app bombards the user with ads and does not have some of the other options I appreciate from Currency Converter HD.

Currency Converter HD’s nifty calculator also saves you from having to open the iPhone’s Calculator app in order to do a calculation after converting the currency. Like other competing currency exchange apps, this one updates the latest conversions frequently and automatically as long as your phone is connected to the internet and the app is running.

 

American Airlines

When I am flying with American Airlines or other member airlines of the oneworld alliance, I often open this app as soon as the plane lands to see if my next flight’s departing time or gate number has changed. (The app can notify you if there are flight changes!)

Using airline apps like this one saves you the time and hassle of having to locate the monitors in the airport with all the flight schedules listed.

 

 

 

Delta Airlines

When I am flying with Delta Airlines or other member airlines of the SkyTeam alliance, I sometimes open this app as soon as the plane lands to see if my next flight’s departing time or gate number has changed. (The app can notify you if there are flight changes!)

Using airline apps like this one saves you the time and hassle of having to locate the monitors in the airport with all the flight schedules listed.

 

 

 

United Airlines

When I am flying with United Airlines or other member airlines of StarAlliance, I sometimes open this app as soon as the plane lands to see if my next flight’s departing time or gate number has changed. (The app can notify you if there are flight changes!)

Using airline apps like this one saves you the time and hassle of having to locate the monitors in the airport with all the flight schedules listed.

 

 

 

Frequent Flyer Miles Tracker

This is the app I use to store my frequent flyer mileage numbers for each airline that I have an account with. If you are at the check-in counter at the airport and for whatever reason do not have your airline priority membership card readily available, just open this app so that the airline official can check you in with your frequent flyer mileage number.

 

 

 

National Geographic World Atlas

I discovered this app while researching for this blog post and was looking for a better app to recommend than the world factbook that I had been using. I am impressed with this one.

When connected to the internet the apps can zoom in even closer. Other than maps, it has information on each country such as: languages spoken, economic and government data, major holidays, religions practiced, information on major cities within each country and more. It even has a currency converter tool (but no calculator built in). I’m sold!

 

 

Audiobooks from Audible

If I had to choose only one app it would be this one. How else am I supposed to pass the time?

Read more here for my thoughts on audiobooks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Athan Pro – Prayer Timings and Tracking

If you do business in the Muslim World, you’ll want this app. It is always helpful to know when the prayer times are in each country so that you can setup appointments without interruption. I once had an international guest from Morocco visit me in the USA. He told me that on Friday of that week he wanted to go to the local mosque and pray. I opened the Athan Pro app, typed in the local zip code, and I instantly had all the prayer times at my fingertips. Later I called the mosque to verify that the time was correct. It was spot on.

 

 

Skype WiFi

Sometimes you’re in an international airport, and all the available WIFI signals are either blocked, or to use them, you would have to go through the annoying hassle of entering your credit card number and personal information. Skype WiFi bypasses all of that. If you have a Skype account (which you should!) you can simply use your Skype credit to connect to connect to the WIFI networks that require payment. Connection times are in 30-minute intervals.

 

 

 

Google Translate

If you’re an international road warrior or at least speak a foreign language you are probably already aware of this one. Google Translate is able to translate from any one language to another with more than sixty to choose from. The app requires a connection to the internet.

 

 

 

 

Michaelis Moderno Dicionário de Português e Inglês

I realize that not everyone speaks a combination of Portuguese and English. This dictionary app represents whatever advanced dictionary app you would need. If you find yourself often conversing between German and Japanese and you do not speak both at a native level, then I suggest keeping an advanced dictionary around such as this one.

I recommend the Michaelis Moderno dictionary apps. They are very complete and even come with other features, such as being able to see a full breakdown of conjugations for any verb. For that reason, this particular app is sold for $29.99. It was well worth what I paid. Michaelis Moderno dictionary apps require no connection to the internet and give all possible alternative translations for each word; Google Translate, by contrast, only gives a single, best guess translation.

 

Skype

This is the #1 app that you should have for all communication while abroad. You can call anywhere in the world for free (if the person you’re calling has a Skype account) and can call telephones for only a few cents per minute.

But you’ve probably been using Skype for years already, so keep reading…

 

 

 

 

Viber

To me, Viber is just another app for chatting since it has all the same major features as Skype and WhatsApp. But if you have business partners and customers around the world, at least some of them will be using it, so it is very useful to have.

 

 

 

 

 

WhatsApp Messenger

WhatsApp is just like Viber. If you’ve got a wide range of friends and business contacts, you should probably have this app too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SoundHound

No doubt you’ll hear music while abroad, and you’ll want to identify the artist and song title. SoundHound is a free app that can listen to the music in the background wherever you are and then look up the artist and song title for you. If you have no connection to the internet where you are, no worries… SoundHound can temporarily store the recorded audio clip and try to locate the song for you later once you’ve reestablished an internet connection.

Full disclosure: Although SoundHound has access to a giant database of all sorts of music, I’ve noticed the app is better at identifying more mainstream music. Don’t be surprised if it cannot recognize, let’s say, a Turkish song that hasn’t yet made it to international radio stations.

 

I also refer frequently to the following resources:

  1. Airline alliance Wiki page – Since I generally purchase flights from budget travel websites, I fly a wide range of airlines from all three major alliances and some others that do not belong to any alliance. When purchasing my flights, it is important to enter in the frequent flyer number of the airline that 1) is a common member airline of the same alliance of the particular flight in question, and 2) is the airline that I track my frequent flyer miles with for that alliance. To maximize your frequent flyer miles (assuming you want free upgrades, flights, etc.) you are going to want to try to make sure that as many of your flights as possible are on member airlines of one of the three major alliances: Star Alliance, SkyTeam, and oneworld. This Wiki article is the only single place on the WWW that I’ve found that keeps them so well-organized. I’ve noticed that the article also gets updated often when airlines move from one alliance to another.
  2. Air Miles Calculator – Enter in just about any two or more airports, and this website will tell you how many frequent flyer miles you should accrue. The website does not account for multipliers, so if you have elite status on a particular airline, you might earn something like 1.25 or 1.5 frequent flyer miles per actual “butt in seat” mile that the Air Miles Calculator website tries to calculate for.

 

*If you know of an app that deserves to be on this list you may leave a comment below or email me at emileaphaneuf (at) gmail.com. I am also looking to produce an equivalent post to this one for Android and Blackberry. If you have international travel experience and a number of favorite apps for smooth travel for either the Android or Blackberry platforms you may also contact me. 

 

See also: