How to Configure Language Support on Your iOS Device

It's s Small World...If you are interested in configuring and using your iOS device to write, dictate, and yes, even converse with Siri in different languages, then this article is for you. Perhaps you are learning a new language and want to "practice" with your device. Or maybe, like me, you are an expatriate who needs to occasionally communicate in your native tongue.

As I discuss the language features available to you in iOS, I will use my own situation for illustration. On my iPhone and iPad, both of which are set up as American English devices, I periodically need to write in Italian, whether it be in Mail, Messages or any text processor like Notes or Pages. In fact, every technique I cover will work, as long as you see a keyboard for inputing text. This is because foreign language support is system-wide; baked into iOS and available to all apps that accept text input.

Let's examine your device's settings specific to language support. The starting point is Settings > General > International.


When you first set up your new device, you were asked for the desired System Language. Actually, this can be changed any time from the Settings > General > International pane. My iPad and iPhone are configured for the English Language and for United States English Voice Control, all using the text formatting appropriate in the U.S. "region," such as dates, numbers, time stamps, etc.

The Languages Settings pane for setting the System Language.

The Language Settings pane lets choose from many available System Languages.

While in the International Settings pane, when you tap on Language, you are presented with a list of supported idioms which you can change to temporarily or permanently. As I look at my iPhone 5 running iOS 6.0.2, I see 34 languages to choose from. These are the iOS System Languages available to you.

The Language setting you choose will reconfigure the iOS user interface text, commands, controls, and other graphical elements to your selected language. It's important to note that you do not need to change your System Language in order to write in another language. For example, I can write with Italian language support while maintaining English as my System Language. I'll show you how momentarily.

An example of how setting the System Language might be useful, would be demonstrating what the iOS environment looks like in another language to people who speak that language natively. I've temporarily switched mine to Italian to show off my iPhone to relatives, or to have them try things out for themselves, but I normally keep it in U.S. English mode for everyday use.

The Settings panel is all in Italian when the iPhone's System Language set to Italian.

This is what the Settings panel looks like when the System Language is set to Italian.

WARNING: Experimentation is a great learning tool and is generally safe in iOS. However, if you set your System Language to one that is not familiar to you – especially character-based languages like Chinese – once you get past the initial visual shock, you may have a difficult time resetting back to your default language. The only way to do it successfully is via trial-and-error.


Available only on iPhone, Voice Control is for voice-dialing in a selected language and can be independent of Siri.  Go to Settings > General > International > Voice Control. There are two types of control settings offered up in the iPhone's Voice Control pane: Siri in the top half of the pane and Voice Dial Only in the bottom half. Of course, the Siri controls will appear in the list only if your device supports Siri. If you select a Voice Dial Only language, Siri will be disabled.

As for iPad and iPod touch models which support Siri, you won't see Voice Control, but you will see language support for Siri located in Settings > General > Siri. Of course, for all this to work, Siri must be enabled via the Siri master switch in this pane.

The Siri settings pane with Italian selected as the Language.

In the Siri Settings pane, Italian is the selected language.


Even though I have my System Language set to English on my iPad and iPhone, I can still set Siri and/or Voice Dial Only to Italian. It goes without saying that once these are set the way I want, I have to issue my voice commands and queries in standard Italian (no dialects) in order to be understood. And, Siri will answer in Italian. Mamma mia, she does an awesome job!

By the way, on iPhone, the desired language for Siri can be selected in either of two places: in the Settings > General > Siri or the Settings > General > International > Voice Control settings panels. These are linked so that changes made in one will be reflected in the other.


Back in the International Settings pane you will find another control called Keyboards. By default, the Keyboard on each of my devices is set to English. You can have more than one language keyboard configured, and switch easily between them, as we'll see in a bit.

Within the English pane on my devices, the Software Keyboard is set to QWERTY, the standard Keyboard Layout utilized in the United States.

The term Software Keyboard refers to the virtual keyboard that appears on screen when you need to type text. Its setting is viewed by going to Settings > General > International > Keyboards > English > QWERTY.  QWERTY refers to the physical layout of the keys on a keyboard. The name reflects the sequence of the first six letters on the top row, starting from the left, of an iOS software keyboard.

There are various physical keyboard layouts in different countries. For example, personal computer keyboards in France don't utilize the QUERTY layout we are used to in the U.S. The French use the AZERTY layout. In any event, you can select whichever keyboard layout you are most comfortable using. It's highly convenient that I can write in Italian with Italian spell checking and word suggestions, while typing on my familiar QUERTY keyboard layout.

The International Settings pane, the Keyboards pane, and the Italian Keyboard pane, side-by-side.

There are three keyboards enabled. Even with the Italian keyboard activated, I can use the familiar QWERTY layout.

On any of the Keyboards language panes you will also see a list of Hardware Keyboard Layout languages. They're listed toward the bottom. These let you configure language support for any docked or bluetooth keyboards.

As I alluded to, you can have more than one international Keyboard enabled on your device. You can do this via Settings > General > International > Add New Keyboard, or via Settings > General > Keyboard > Keyboards > Add New Keyboard. Notice that you can go into edit mode in the Keyboards pane, allowing you to rearrange multiple keyboards or disable keyboards.

On my devices, I have three keyboards configured: English, Italian and Emoji. Emoji is another international character set that consists of those obnoxious but ever-so-cute Japanese graphical versions of text emoticons – you know, the smiley faces, lips, hearts, pizza slices, smiling piles of poo, and a whole lot more. And, yes, the hipster in me likes using them, too.

The Emoji keyboard in the Notes app.

Here we see the Emoji keyboard in the Notes app. Several sets of Emoji are available.

Here's a fun bonus tip for the holidays: type a bunch of Emoji characters in the Notes app, select them, and have Siri read them back to you. For this to work you must have Speak Selection enabled in the Settings > General > Accessibility pane.


As soon as you configure an additional International Keyboard Layout beyond the default one on your device, a new key with an icon representing a globe, appears on your Software Keyboard to the left of the spacebar. Apple calls this, oddly enough, the Globe Key.

The Globe Key acts as a switch that, when tapped, will sequentially cycle through all the languages you set up in Keyboard Layout. When switching, there is a visual cue – the selected language name appears briefly over the spacebar. From that point on, you are typing in your chosen language. All spell checking and word suggestions will now be in the selected language.

A detail view of the software keyboard showing the special Globe and Microphone Keys.

The Globe Key and Microphone Key appear when the proper settings are enabled.


Many written foreign words use diacritical marks, such as accented vowels. A typical example is the accented 'e' in café. Some other examples include piñata, über, and façade. The software keyboard in iOS - regardless which language is selected - makes it very easy to type letters with diacritical marks.

For example, to type "café," a french word, simply type "c - a - f" then tap-and-hold the 'e' key. A little pop-up menu appears, offering you all the diacritical marks available for the letter 'e'. While you are still pressing, simply slide your finger to the desired choice, and voilà, it is typed for you.

Via a pop-up menu, the keyboard can show available diacritical marks for the letter pressed.

When wanting an accented 'e', press-and-hold to reveal your choices.

You will frequently find that properly formed words with diacritical marks will be auto-inserted by the spell checker where appropriate. This same pop-up menu system offering diacritical marks and special characters is available on a number of letter and character keys on all keyboards, so be sure to explore.

By the way, on a Mac running Mountain Lion, you are given the same mechanism as in iOS for typing special characters and diacritical marks. Try it for yourself with the café example. When you come to the 'e', hold the key down and you will be shown a similar little pop-up menu of choices. Click the desired one with your mouse or trackpad, or type the numeral shortcut key ('2' in this case) shown beneath the chosen letter in the pop-up menu.


Finally, to use the iOS voice dictation feature in a foreign language, realize first that dictation is NOT dependent on Siri's Language setting. Instead, it is based on the Keyboard Layout setting.

If your iOS device supports dictation, you will see a new key sporting a small microphone icon on your software keyboard. This is the Microphone Key and appear to the left of the spacebar. Tap it to start dictating after a beep – up to thirty seconds at a time. Tap again to stop and process the speech-to-text. Whichever international Software Keyboard you have switched to, that is the language that iOS will recognize for the purposes of dictation.

Italian text dictated in the Notes app.

Italian text dictated in Notes. (Translation: "Help!! Today is the end of the world!!").

In conclusion, I am very impressed with how well this all works. My System Language stays set to English. When I switch to my preconfigured Italian QWERTY keyboard, I can not only type in Italian with the proper spell checker watching over my shoulder, I can also dictate in Italian. In the meantime, Siri (or Voice Control on iPhone) remains set to U.S. English. When I'm done with my Italian dictation, I simply switch the keyboard back to U.S. English by tapping on the Globe key until the desired keyboard becomes active.  As for Siri, I rarely switch her to Italian unless, of course, I want to show-off!

The globe of flags image courtesy of Shutterstock.