One of the biggest challenges most expats in Geneva face is the language barrier. Switzerland has three official languages and one national language. The official languages are German, French, and Italian, all of which are also national languages and fourth national language is Romansh. The difference between official and national languages is a bit vague, but most easily explained in this way: official languages are legally binding (e.g. contracts can be written in any of these languages) and products in grocery stores, etc will be in these languages. The part of Switzerland containing Geneva speaks French. If you look at a map, you can see Switzerland is bordered by France, Italy, Germany, Liechtenstein, and Austria. Thus, the German, Italian, and French influences. Romansh is an old dialect spoken primarily in the valleys of the Alps and is based in the old language of the Romans. Below is a map of where is language is spoken.

Linguistic map of Switzerland (source)

Linguistic map of Switzerland (source)

So as you can see, there are plenty of languages many expats, including myself, don’t speak over here. And while most people take French lessons, it takes time to become fluent. So the question is: what do you do in the mean time when you need to translate a website, instruction manual, official looking letter, or other instructions which are only in French, German, and/or Italian?

For instance, I constantly find myself painstakingly typing an entire letter or instruction booklet into google translate. Now, this isn’t too terrible because I am a rather quick typist, but I constantly make mistakes since I don’t know how to spell very many words in French yet. Admittedly, this method works, but it is a bit slower. After a few stops and starts, I’ve figured out the best ways to translate some things.

How to Translate Websites

The best thing to do here is get Google Chrome. It has a built-in functionality which will automatically detect the language in a website and translate the entire page for you. This has been a huge lifesaver! The only downside is that sometimes web designers put text on a website as an image. In this case, the Google Chrome translation engine won’t be able to translate it. But, if you really need to know what it says, you can always hop over to the trusty Google translate page and just type it in. Here’s how to activate the translation function in Google Chrome:  1. Select the menu button then settings 2. Scroll to the bottom and click Advanced Settings 3. Scroll nearly to the bottom and click Offer to Translate Pages. See the photo below for more info.

enable google chrome translate

How to enable the auto-translate feature in Google Chrome. 1. Select the menu then settings 2. Scroll to the bottom and click Advanced Settings 3. Scroll nearly to the bottom and click Offer to Translate Pages (click image to view larger)

How to Translate Emails

Gmail has this really nifty ability to translate messages practically automatically. When you receive an email in a foreign language (determined by your language setting), you’ll see something like in the below photo on the left. We received this email regarding setting up our internet. It’s in French and we needed to figure out what it said so we knew what to do. As you can see, a little bar shows up saying “French,” “English,” and “Translate message.” This means Google auto-detected that the email was in French and guessed from my language settings that I’d like to view it in English. So, to see it in English, I just had to press the “Translate message” link. After pressing the translate link, I ended up with the message on the right. You can see that I’ve automatically set my Gmail to translate French in the future. While the translation isn’t perfect, you can figure out what it means, even if you have to look up a few stray words in a dictionary. This makes email so much easier!

Gmail Translation Before and After

Gmail Translation Before and After (click image to view larger)

How to Translate Instruction Booklets

First, its worth checking out your instruction booklet to see if there is an English section. Often, the abbreviation for English is “GB” for Great Britain. This is because many products are sold all over Europe and its the same model here in Switzerland as it is in Great Britain. This is the best case scenario, no translation is necessary!

If there’s no English section in your instruction booklet, you should try a Google search next.  Try the manufacturer’s website to see if you can download an English version of the booklet. Sometimes its the same model in the UK, they just package it with a different instruction booklet. If that fails, try a web search for the instruction booklet to see if you get lucky. If not, download the instruction book in another language. Its key to get it in electronic form. This is because you can upload a document (pdf, word, etc) to Google Translate and it will translate the whole thing for you. This made things so much easier for me! Here’s how: 1. go to 2. click on “translate a document” 3. Upload your document 4. Click translate

how to translate a document

How to translate a document with Google Translate: 1. go to 2. click on “translate a document” 3. Upload your document 4. Click translate (click image to view larger)

Other Tips

The best way to overcome the language barrier is to learn the language. There are many, many places you can go to learn French (or one of Switzerland’s other languages). As a starting point, check out our earlier blog post about Cheap French Classes in Geneva. If you join AIWC, we offer many language-based activities to get you started in French and help you practice French conversation.

We are a group of international women living in Geneva, Switzerland. If you would like to join the AIWC, please visit our website at