Turn Your iPhone, iPad, or Mac into a Foreign Language Dictionary

Turn Your iPhone, iPad, or Mac into a Foreign Language Dictionary

Those of you who happen to love your Apple devices as much as I do are probably familiar with an often overlooked, but incredibly useful feature: built-in dictionaries.

On my MacBook Air, I three-finger tap any new words I come across on the internet. On the iMacs I can’t stop playing with at my university’s book store, I can right-click on them and select Look Up. When I’m reading on my iPad Mini, I simply highlight the words I want and tap Define.

In all three cases, the functionality is the same – a little window pops up next to the word with its definition.

I never really took note of this feature until I started reading The Name of the Wind on my iPad. I haven’t finished it yet, but there have already been so many words I wasn’t quite sure about that it would have been hell to switch over to a browser and Google definitions for all of them.

Honestly, I probably would have forgotten a lot of the words in the process of switching apps, and would have had to go back to iBooks to find it again. If you’re a fan of completely destroying your immersion when intaking media, then this probably sounds fantastic to you – I, however, am not a masochist.

Being myself, I immediately needed to know if this feature could be harnessed in the name of language learning – and to my delight, it can!

Now, before we go to the effort of setting this up, let’s make sure at least one of these options appeals to you. Note that this list only applies to the newest versions of iOS and OS X – I’m not sure what your exact list will be if you’re running an earlier version, but it wasn’t too long ago when there weren’t many options past English.

Monolingual dictionaries (you’ll get the definition in your target language, not a translation):

  • Spanish
  • French
  • German
  • Simplified Chinese (also shows pronunciation in Pinyin)
  • Japanese (also shows pronunciation in Hiragana)
  • Italian
  • Dutch
  • Korean

Translation dictionaries (translate from English to your target language and back, no definitions):

  • Simplified Chinese
  • Japanese
  • Korean

If one or more of these sounds useful to you, then great! Let’s continue. If not, then you probably won’t get much use out of this post until more dictionaries become available.


To get this set up on an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, the first thing you’ll have to do is simply highlight a word. It can be almost anywhere – in a browser, in an eBook, or just from a note you typed up yourself.

When the little menu pops up, you’ll need to tap Define. This’ll bring up the dictionary display for whatever word you highlighted.

If you read that top paragraph closely, you can probably guess what children's story I was reading.

If you read that top paragraph closely, you can probably guess what children’s story I was reading.

At the bottom of this window, there will be another link that says Manage. You want that one. Tap it, and a list of available dictionaries shows up with the little cloud icon on the right indicating that you can download them for free. Tap the cloud icon next to any dictionaries you want, and wait for them to download. If there are any dictionaries you don’t want anymore, just tap the little ‘x’ next to them.

After you’ve got the dictionaries you want, simply highlight and tap Define on any word you want, and the dictionary window will pop up with any available definitions from the dictionaries you have available.


On OS X, enabling new dictionaries is a little more straightforward. Open up the default Dictionary app, and then in the top menu click Dictionary->Preferences and you’ve got a list of dictionaries to choose from, complete with the ability to drag them into your preferred order.


To use it, either highlight and right-click a word and click Look Up, or tap a word or highlighted selection with three fingers. If the three-finger tap is disabled, you can reenable it by going to System Preferences->Trackpad and clicking the checkbox next to Look Up.

When to Use This

If you already have a pretty strong grasp on reading in your target language, or you have a translation dictionary available, then you can use these dictionaries immediately. Otherwise, you can use them for basic reading practice – try reading the definition in your target language before you go to a translation, just in case you find out you can read it!

Either way, my favorite times to use this feature are during instant messaging conversations on Skype and while reading foreign material online or in iBooks.

Needing to switch out of whatever I’m immersing myself in to find an English definition disrupts my foreign language flow, so I really like being able to get definitions in the language I’m reading so I can keep English out of my head until I’m done.

Now get out there and read some new words!

photo source: MacBook
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