How to use your iPhone to translate foreign words to English (no app required)

If you have ever tried to wrap your head around a second language, the effectiveness of reading books or news of that foreign origin will not have escaped you: aside from proactively memorizing words and grammar, it’s probably the quickest way to getting a grasp of the concept of any foreign language. While it is no longer a secret that Apple provides a set of built-in dictionaries for when you stumble upon a word unbeknownst to you, there is an important distinction between some of the dictionaries available to you.

The tutorial below is going to highlight the difference between the two main subsets of dictionaries (thesaurus vs. actual language to language translation) and scrutinize if your language of choice is one of the few lucky ones Apple decided to support beyond the thesaurus. Following that is a quick demonstration on how to translate the words in question to English. Read on to find out why some dictionaries are simply better than others.

It is beyond discussion that Apple’s dictionaries were not created equal. The Dictionary section located in Settings is rife with native dictionaries offering synonyms and explanations in their own language for any tagged word. The existence of such is helpful, however if I decided to acquire for example the Danish language from scratch, a Danish dictionary would only get me so far.

Luckily though, even if only for a limited set of languages, Apple has something much more powerful up their sleeves: to this day, seven languages also come with a ‘foreign language to English’ dictionary, which you should download on any account if you happen to be a student of one of them. Once installed, looking up a word will no longer just define it, but actually translate it on the spot. 
Here is a list of the languages supported so far:

  • Dutch
  • French
  • German
  • Italian
  • Japanese
  • Korean
  • Spanish

The dictionaries are titled XYZ – English and can be found in Settings > General > Dictionary.

Translation dictionary on iPhone

How to translate words to English on iPhone or iPad

1) In this example, I am going to ask my device to help me translate French words to English. If you are a learner of French or one of the six other eligible languages stated above, go to your Settings and click General.

General Settings on iPhone

2) Next, tap the Dictionary tab.

Dictionary settings

3) As marked in the final screenshot before the tutorial, you can identify the dictionaries capable of ‘foreign language to English’ translations by looking at the suffixes. Aim for XYZ – English in accordance with the language you’re trying to pick up. I will click and download French – English by simply tapping on it.

Add translation dictionary on iPhone

4) As soon as the download is complete (signified by a little tick next to the dictionary), your iPhone or iPad has gained some serious brainpower. When you now read your foreign sources, just highlight the word beyond your grasp and tap Look Up.

5) Unlike with the encyclopedia definition, this time a full-blown dictionary is going to appear on top of the see-through interface and take center stage. For comparison’s sake, here is a look at your information screen before and after you have downloaded the smart dictionary. Tap it for a detailed elucidation.

Translate words with iPhone

6) The various meanings of the word (depending on context and syntax) will break open. This is perfect if you want to for example note it down in your vocab book.

Translated word on iPhone

And that is how the cookie crumbles. As slick as this is, it would be even more wholesome if it pertained to more than a single word at a time – unfortunately at this stage it does not. Likewise, Apple would do well to add more languages to the catalogue, which could of course be in the works as we speak.

The dictionaries are available on any device running iOS 9 or above including iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.