Estimates suggest at least 50 percent of the world’s population is bilingual. Almost 20 percent of Americans speak Spanish, and more than 80 percent of students in the European Union speak at least two languages.
If you’re one of the 3.5 billion people who are fluent in multiple tongues, you will presumably want to add multiple languages to your Mac’s dictionary app. Even if you can’t speak two languages, adding more dictionaries is an excellent way to help you learn.
But how do you do it? Here’s a step-by-step guide to adding additional languages.
An Introduction to the Dictionary App
All Mac computers come preinstalled with the Dictionary app. The easiest way to access it is via Spotlight — just hit command+space and start typing “Dictionary” then hit Enter.
It’s important to realize this is not necessarily the dictionary that apps use to spell check words in documents. Some apps – such as Microsoft Word – come with their own dictionary, others will rely on the operating system’s native spell check feature.
The Dictionary app is for reference only. You can look up words, use it as a thesaurus, or even install translation glossaries.
If you bought your Mac in an English-speaking country, the app preloads the Oxford American Dictionary, the British Oxford Dictionary of English, and Wikipedia. You can add as many additional dictionaries as you need.
You can easily download many common foreign language dictionaries from directly within the app itself. However, if you’re looking for something more niche, you need to download and install the necessary files manually.
Mac’s Additional Dictionaries
Depending on where you live, you could have as many as 30 inactive dictionaries. Thankfully, “turning on” these dictionaries is a simple process.
Before making any decisions, open the Dictionary app and select the All tab to see what dictionaries are already installed. You can click each dictionary’s individual tab to work with that dictionary specifically.
Activating the Additional Dictionaries
To download any available dictionaries directly from the app, navigate to Dictionary > Preferences. On the list of dictionaries, mark the checkbox next to the ones you want to install.
You’ll see a progress bar pop up in the bottom left-hand corner. As soon as you see it, you can close the Preferences window.
On the All tab of the main app, you’ll now see the dictionaries you chose to install, along with a downloading message.
Changing the Order
To modify the order the individual dictionaries appear within the app, go back to Dictionary > Preferences and drag the entries into your desired sequence.
Customizing Each Dictionary
Some entries – such as Wikipedia – have additional language-based options for you to customize. They allow you to search sources in multiple languages for the information you need.
It’s a useful and oft-overlooked feature. For example, a Spanish-language Wikipedia entry about something in the Spanish-speaking world will often be much more in-depth than the English-language equivalent.
You can edit the settings from Dictionary > Preferences.
Installing Third-Party Dictionaries
If you cannot find what you’re looking for in Dictionary > Preferences, you need to find a third-party solution.
The Dictionary app can only read *.DICT files. Therefore, you either need to find a DICT file for the language you want, or convert different filetype into a DICT file.
Where to Find DICT Dictionaries
Perhaps surprisingly, there are not many websites offering a free database of DICT files for download.
You could try Michel Clasquin-Johnson’s page; he’s spent the time to convert a lot of non-DICT files into the DICT format. Results can be hit-and-miss – all the files work, but their quality varies. Michel also admits he’s not able to test them for accuracy due to his linguistic limitations.
He’s got downloads for almost every European language (Western and Eastern), the most popular Asian languages, and three African languages (Afrikaans, Kabyle, and Swahili).
If Michel doesn’t have the language you require, you might have some luck doing a simple Google search.
Installing a DICT File
Adding a DICT file to the app is straightforward. When the Dictionary app is open, go to File > Open Dictionaries Folder and drag-and-drop the file into the window.
It should automatically appear in the app’s main window. If it’s not there, trying quitting and relaunching it.
Finding Other Dictionaries
If you can’t find a ready-made DICT file anywhere, you’ll need to convert a non-DICT file yourself.
StarDict used to be the best place to find the files, but it’s not seen any active development in many years, and a lot of the original work has been lost due to an ongoing legal battle.
As of today, your best chance is to visit stardict.rrr.rs. It’s not affiliated with the original StarDict project, but the site maintains a repository of old StarDict dictionaries. Aside from countless language dictionaries, you can also download legal dictionaries, business dictionaries, health dictionaries, scientific dictionaries, and a lot more.
Download your desired dictionary’s tarball file to your desktop before proceeding.
Converting the Dictionary File
To turn the tarball into a DICT file, you need to download DictUnifier. You can grab it for free on GitHub.
Install it on your Mac and fire up the app. To make a conversion, drag-and-drop the tarball into the app’s user interface.
The app will automatically take care of the rest, including installation. To make sure it’s worked, navigate to Dictionary > File > Open Dictionaries Folder and ensure you can see the file.
Did You Encounter Any Issues?
Do you use the Dictionary app? Despite its low profile, it’s undoubtedly one of the best and most underused native apps on the entire Mac operating system. If you’ve never tried it, I hope reading this article and learning about the sheer amount of information it can contain has convinced you of it benefits.
I’m also keen to try and assist if you encounter any difficulties while installing your new dictionaries. What went wrong? What error messages did you see?
Leave your problems in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to help.