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How to Type Chinese Words on English Keyboards

Chinese words can be typed on English keyboards using various input method editors that allow the typist to type a sequence of characters in order to create a single syllable or symbol. But the reality of Chinese touch typing is much more complex, partly in view of its idiosyncratic, non-alphabet based structure and partly because of the sheer number of Chinese characters (anywhere from 3000 to 5000) one needs to master to type and speak Chinese properly and sufficiently.

Input Method Editors

Phonetic-based input method editors

This type of Chinese input method editor allows the user to input Chinese words that are Romanized; that is, transliterated using the Roman (Latin) alphabet based on pronunciation. The most notable of such editors use the Pinyin system.

The typist uses the Roman alphabet to type in the letters corresponding to how a Chinese word is pronounced, and the editor then recommends various Chinese character options to choose from. By typing the transliteration of Chinese words using a standard QWERTY keyboard, the typist is spared the need for choosing each character stroke — which in some Chinese characters might mean up to 50 different strokes for one single syllable.

However, this method is not flawless. In fact, it’s a rather slow typing technique because the typist is expected to continually stop typing in order to choose from a list of various homophones to find the right one.

The Pinyin input method is best pictured as similar to the auto-correct system integrated in mobile devices texting services, which use context and the initial user input to recommend the most appropriate words.

While Pinyin editors are becoming more and more intuitive they haven’t still compensated for the slow speed they’re defined by.

Shape-based input method editors

This method of Chinese language processing lets the user input a sequence of strokes that form the character they wish to create. The typist is expected to input, using the conventional keyboard, the strokes they would normally draw if they were to draw the character on paper.

The Wubi input method editor, one of the most widely used editors, lets the user input up to 5 keystrokes. The first four are the initial strokes of a character, while the last one must be the stroke the user would normally draw last, with any other strokes ignored.

The Wubi IME divides the conventional QWERTY keyboard into five groups, with each having a particular type of character stroke based on direction: left inclined, right inclined, horizontal, vertical, and hook.

Phonetic-based and shape-based IME editors are the most popular tools people use to touch type on QWERTY keyboards and hand-held devices with a Chinese-character output. Initiatives are currently being taken to find ways these can be optimized in order to be more time-efficient and less labor-intensive for the typist.

Impressively, bloggers and mobile phone users can, through substantial practice, manage to type incredibly fast with these methods. Some Wubi method users have astonishing 150-160 words per minute records.

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