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I've always said that total immersion and avoiding English are the key to learning a language quickly. However, even when living in the country, watching TV, socialising and doing everything else in the local language, you may still be exposed to too much English on your computer. And if you can't travel yet to practise the language, then wouldn't it be great if you could feel at least “virtually” immersed? Well, you can!
Change your computer's interface language
Even if, for all practical purposes, most things you do on the computer may be in English (writing emails, reading blogs, chatting, work, etc.) why not try using the interface in the language you want to practise? This is surprisingly easy in most cases! Even if your familiarity with the language is still weak, the position of the words within the program is usually the same, and may even be helped by icons. You get used to it very quickly and you will learn some important words relevant to how you naturally use your computer, as well as just feeling like you are in the foreign language, which can help your motivation to improve your level.
Right now almost everything on my computer is presented to me in Portuguese, to help me stay in the right mindset for my current mission. When it's time to get in the mood for speaking the next language (actually Esperanto again for a week around New Year's in Poland for the JES event, before I start my already-decided next language mission somewhere else in January; to be revealed later!) I don't need to install any new programs and can change my entire computer to any of several languages I choose in less than 5 minutes. Today I'll show you how!
Localizing your browser and browsing
I am definitely not Internet Explorer‘s biggest fan; no use winging too much about it though, since Google Analytics tells me that 20% of visitors to my site use it! So if you're happy with IE then here is some info for changing the default language on some websites (that redirect to a particular language if available). You can download the entire browser and install it in several languages (but each language requires a new full download), and you should reinstall the program anyway if you are using anything older than version 8.0.
Luckily, for the rest of us it's much simpler than that! My browser of choice (and of 60% of my readers), Firefox, lets you install a handy plugin called Quick Locale Switcher. After setting it up, you can change the language the entire browser is presented to you in (File, Edit, right-click etc.), the language of most of the plugins, the dictionaries available for spell-checks, and even the language of websites themselves if they are available in it, in just two clicks. [Edit: this plugin is crashing for some people; if that's the case for you, then another solution that requires a few extra steps is outlined here, or a less extensive locale-changer plugin can be found here] If you use Firefox, don't forget to check out my tips for taking advantage of its spell checker.
Some sites that can change, do not automatically change, despite the browser's default language. This is due to your profile settings and can easily be altered in sites such as Facebook.
Turning your entire computer's interface into another language
A lot of programs that you can download are available in several languages from the website itself, or the display language is an option that you choose in the installation set-up. Some (like Skype) even let you change the interface language from within the already-installed program. For other applications, you may have to go through them individually and see how easy this is and if it's worth re-downloading or reinstalling. For example, if you have a chess program, why not play it in Spanish, Italian, French, Japanese etc.?
But the ultimate interface change is for your entire Operating System. If you are on a Mac, then changing the system language is easy; that is directly linked to many installed programs such as Safari, so most of what you see on the computer is translated!
It's possible in Windows Vista, but a bit complicated [edit: and you can do it in XP too], but unless you have the more expensive Professional/Enterprise editions of these Operating Systems you will have to actually buy a new installation CD for each language. This is also the case in Windows 7. Even changing the Windows interface language still leaves you the problem of the languages in MS Office and other programs. Luckily, for those of us on a PC there is a much handier (and free) solution; Ubuntu.
Try Ubuntu instead of Windows
Ubuntu is the easiest to use flavour of Linux; an operating system and alternative to Windows (and OS X) that would have been too complicated for most users in the past. However, nowadays Ubuntu is extremely easy to test, install and use, and is actually easier to use than Windows in many aspects, as well as being extremely customisable. Best of all, it's completely free.
If you don't like Windows (because of viruses, constant crashes, waiting 8 years for an “OK” upgrade that you still have to pay a lot for, etc.) then consider downloading this and trying it out from the CD, without even needing to install it (so it won't even affect your system if you decide it's not for you). After I lost all of my data about 2 years ago when my Windows system crashed, I moved to Ubuntu and have been very happy with it since; just a few days ago the latest version was released – a free download as always!
Since Ubuntu is open source (a concept I've mentioned before), the community helps to write it, and that includes language availabilities. What makes it different from Windows, and even the Mac, in this respect is the scope of languages available. It can be viewed in an incredible 244 languages, including Irish and Esperanto, which I certainly appreciate! And best of all; you can change the display language in just a few clicks! This change goes right down into almost all applications, including Open Office, for example.