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As a student in a foreign country, I deal with a minimum of two languages. Mostly, it’s English and Russian. When I first started using Mac, I was surprised to find that it had built-in support for an abundance of keyboard layouts as well as some phonetic ones. Phonetic keyboards have the same layout as the US keyboard but the letters are transcribed phonetically into the foreign language. Having a phonetic keyboard means that you won’t need to learn the keyboard layout for that particular language. That way, it’s much easier for an English-speaker to type Cyrillic, for example.

However, if the foreign language of your choice doesn’t present with a phonetic keyboard, it’s layout can be tricky for a beginner to adapt. An on-screen keyboard may help you locate the keys you’re looking for. Also, if you use a foreign keyboard as well as a U.S. keyboard, you may want to switch from one language to another from time to time. All this is easily available from your menu bar, once you activate it.

In System Preferences, click on International then the Input Menu tab. Once there, you’ll have the option of checking the on-screen keyboard (called Keyboard Viewer on Mac) box. This just means that you can easily access it from your menu bar later. Also, you can select the languages you want to type on your keyboard. You may choose as many as you like. After you’re done, make sure to check the box next to “Show input menu in menu bar”. Like magic, a flag will pop up on your menu bar representing the language which you are currently using to type.

Now, if you have selected several languages, you might want a way to easily shuffle through them. Yes, you could click on each language individually from the menu bar but there is an faster way and you won’t have to remove your hands from the keyboard. While you’re still at the input menu, click on the “Keyboard shortcuts” button. You will be brought to the Keyboard shortcuts preference page. Scroll all the way down until you see “Input Menu” and check its box. Make sure that the boxes for “Select previous input source” and “Select the next input source in the Input menu” are checked.


By default, the shortcuts for Input Menu and Spotlight clash, you’ll notice a small triangle next to the shortcut. Change them and set them to anything you like. Give them a try and see if the input language changes from one language to another!

If you’re not familiar with the foreign language’s keyboard layout, that’s what the Keyboard Viewer is for. Click on the Input Menu (that flag icon) on the menu bar then “Show Keyboard Viewer”. Now you can see which keys are where. Easy peasy.

While speaking (or typing, in this case) a foreign language, you’ll definitely need a dictionary. If you haven’t got the cash to spring for one of those fancy multilingual dictionaries, Mac’s built-in has the ability to add foreign languages to its database. Check out my post “Become A Cunning Linguist With Foreign Languages On Your Mac Become A Cunning Linguist With Foreign Languages On Your Mac Become A Cunning Linguist With Foreign Languages On Your Mac Read More ” for more details on how you can add several different languages to Dictionary and where you can find them for free!

Has this article helped you manage with a foreign language on your Mac? If you have any questions, please feel free to post them in the comments.

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  1. mikali
    October 13, 2009 at 3:38 am

    THANK YOU SO MUCH!!! IM NOOB IN MAC.... Its... so confusing.
    Thanks for the information!!!!

  2. Gabriel
    July 1, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Being able to rotate through all the languages using a keyboard shortcut is nice, but it would be even nicer if I could create one keyboard shortcut for each language. I have four keyboard layouts that I regularly need to switch among, sometimes within a single document, sometimes while working across various applications (e.g., chatting with a friend in one language, working on a document in another). It would be nice if I could create a single keyboard shortcut for each language, such as hitting the "fn" key followed by the first letter of the language. That would be nice. Windows apparently allows you to do this.

  3. Ilan
    November 17, 2008 at 4:03 am


    I just bought a Mac (fun fun!), and I happen to work in about half a dozen languages, all of which I've added to my language input bar. When I was working in Windows, I could easily switch between the 5-6 languages using a keyboard shortcut. I could even assign keyboard shortcuts to each language.

    In a Mac, no matter how many languages I add (and appear on my language input bar), the apple-shift shortcut will only switch between two of them. I have to use the mouse to switch between the various languages- which can be a nuisance if I'm typing up a multi-lingual document.

    Is there any kind of "fix" for this?


    • Jackson
      November 17, 2008 at 7:11 am

      Hi Ilan,

      Yup, you can configure your own keyboard shortcut to navigate through all the languages which you've set to use. Click on the language input (flag) icon on your menu bar and choose "Open International". Below the language selection box, there are input menu shortcuts which you can assign to anything you want (any unused key combination). If you'd like to quickly scroll through the languages, the "Select next input source in menu" is the shortcut you need.

  4. Jackson
    October 9, 2008 at 6:18 am

    Yup, definitely watch out for Windows compatibility, as well as other OSes. It may be seamlessly integrated into Mac but not Windows OOTB.

  5. Aoi
    October 8, 2008 at 6:02 pm

    I'm bilingual (English and Japanese), and have been using Macs since the early 90s because of better support for languages that don't use the Roman alphabet. Several things to keep in mind when switching between your two languages (whatever they are) include:
    1. Does your app support both languages properly?
    2. Can you share the file with Windows or LInux users?
    3. The problems that happen if you save your file as an XML file or in table form for import into MySQL or other databases.
    The Mac does these things great, but there are still bumps along the way.