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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

HELP! I Don’t Speak My Ancestor's Native Language

Climbing your family tree can be difficult if you don't speak the language of their home country. However, you don't have to hire a professional genealogist who can surmount the language barrier just yet. Instead, try these tips first.

Look for Language Guides

As genealogists, we love quick reference guides. They give us targeted tips and information without forcing us to dig through unrelated details to find what we’re looking for.

Thankfully, FamilySearch has a wealth of guides to help us decipher foreign languages. There are two things to look for:

Word Lists

FamilySearch has a Wiki page for genealogists to access records and training tips for nearly every country. One great feature on almost every country-level Wiki Page is word lists.

For Mexico, you can click on this Spanish Word List and find categorized lists for dates and keywords. You can also view alphabetical lists of words you’ll typically encounter in your research, including those under the letter C - read, peasant, field, and chapel.

Extraction Guides -

In 1981, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints produced some manuals to help with the program that preceded our modern-day indexing program. Many of these manuals are accessible on the FamilySearch Wiki for free.

Within the guides, such as this Spanish Record’s guide, you will find tips, examples, and practice exercises to understand some of the core records you will find in genealogy research.

Thanks to the specific examples and typical keywords in these documents, I have become very proficient at reading Spanish Catholic Church baptismal records.

Create Document Templates

When I work with land records, particularly deeds, I have templates that detail the typical jargon used to transfer property from one entity to another. That way, I don’t have to necessarily keep transcribing “in consideration of the sum of ___ dollars, the party of the first part conveys….”

You can do the same for various record types for your research language. Whether you have a resource, as I mentioned before, or not, you’ll make yourself a template in your favorite text-writing program. (Mine is Google Docs).

Then, you can open the template and modify it whenever you stumble upon a record you need to transcribe from a foreign language.

Fast Transcription

As with any transcription project, you should do a fast read and type what you see on a document. Do not worry about translating the information yet.

Leverage handwriting helps, also found on many FamilySearch country Wiki Pages.

Type what you see. Use brackets [] for words for which you're uncertain.

Pay attention to stamps or pre-printed text.

For more tips on this process, check out this post.

↪️ Are you looking for more genealogy resources?

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Go Back to the Troublesome Words

Once you’ve finished the fast transcriptions, return to the words in brackets.

Use letters in words you do know to try to resolve the words in brackets.

You can use a website called

  • First, choose the language that you're researching.

  • I'll choose Spanish.

  • Then, type in the word or a part of a word you are trying to resolve. (In this case, "cho").

  • Select the way you want WordMine to search. (In this case, "Words ending in").

  • Click search.

You'll see a list of words in Spanish that end in "Cho."

If that doesn’t help you find the word, you can try the following.

  1. You can add more letters to simplify the word and search again.

  2. Use * for the spot where you're uncertain.

  3. Change which letters you're using, such as words beginning with "Tech."

Use Google Translate

Next, you can use Google Translate to attempt to convert your transcriptions into your native language. Now be careful. Google Translate is not perfect, but you can get close to the meaning of the words.

Other Google tools can help you with translating your transcription. I will let my colleague Katherine Schober teach you what you need to know from this video. While many of her tips benefit those attempting to read German, you can extrapolate many of her tools and techniques for the languages you’re trying to read.

Get Help

Whenever you get stuck after you’ve made a valiant effort to read a document, ask for help. Many native speakers in your community or Facebook groups know the language you’re researching and will step up to help. One thing I have learned is that you get the best results from volunteers when you do the following:

  1. Provide a large enough image (or a link to the original image) that you’re trying to translate.

  2. Share what you have transcribed (unsure marks and all).

  3. Share your attempt at translating the documents as well.

I have never failed to receive help from someone in a genealogy community when I have shown what I have done and where I’m stuck. Most people will also give you additional tidbits, which are part of the learning process.

If you just ask, “translate this 32-page document for me,” most volunteers likely won’t help you. Or, I would direct you to a professional genealogist for help. You can check out Legacy Tree Genealogists for such a vetted professional.

If you have any helpful genealogy translation tips, please share them in the comments section. I welcome all ideas.

Related Genealogy Articles

While I don't offer additional blog posts about transcribing records, you might like the following research and writing tips.

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