Friday, March 6, 2009


Have you ever thought to yourself "how the hell do Chinese people type on the computer!"

Well, before coming here, I had often wondered that... and so I thought I might as well share the answer with you. First, let's go over some basics of learning Chinese.

There are a couple of ways to learn Chinese, one is with Pinyin. Pinyin is a system of romanization the Chinese language using a form of the English alphabet. The system helps people phonetically learn how characters and words sound. For example the character for "I" () is spelled "wo" in pinyin. This is the way I learned Chinese when I was at Penn State.

Pinyin is also used to "Romanize" street signs here in Taiwan and other places where Chinese is used. So when I see a street sign, I can figure out how it is pronounced (kind of... but more on that later!)

However, for people who don't come from a country that uses the roman-based alphabet, there is another phonetic alphabet used for those learning Chinese. (this is the system used by Taiwanese children - children in mainland China actually learn pinyin). These Mandarin Phonetic Symbols are colloquially referred to as "bopomofo" (just like the English alphabet is called the ABC's). Here are the first four "letters" :
I just had my first Chinese class this morning at Feng Chia University and am now working on memorizing the Bopomofo alphabet (which has 37 characters). One advantage of this system is that because it does not use romanization, confusion over "Latin alphabet" sounds and "Chinese" sounds is not a problem.

In Taiwan children's books are written with this alphabet as a way to allow them to read before they have started learning characters. This alphabet is also used in the dictionary to show the phonetics of characters:

Although I've never seen the above characters before, I can tell you (based on what I learned in class today) that these two characters are "Fu" and "Hao." It's a pretty nifty system.

So, how do they type? Well they use on of these (or any other available romanization) systems to spell how the word sounds. People with standard US keyboards will typically use Pinyin to type Chinese. So when I type the word "wo" the character 我 will pop up. In this sense, it is a lot like predictive text-messaging input. The most common character will come up first and if that is not the correct character, you can just select the right character from an available list.

Native Chinese speakers, or anyone else who learned Chinese with the bopomofo system, also use a QWERTY keyboard with some extra symbols on it.

Input is similar, you spell the Chinese word and characters pop up for you to choose from. This is actually not the only way to type in Chinese, but the other system is a similar I believe.

So... there you go. I hope that wasn't too confusing!

Anyway, I guess I should get back to studying and stop procrastinating!

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