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How to Type in Chinese

Many foreigners are often confused with how the Chinese people type out Chinese characters on their cellphones or computers. Chinese, after all, is not composed of letters like the English or Spanish alphabet; Chinese is constructed in pictographs composed of many strokes. Do the Chinese people even use the same keyboard as in other countries? Or do Chinese keyboards look like this?

Definitely not! We Chinese use the same keyboards as other countries do. But how can we type out so many characters with just the regular 26 letters? That`s what I`d like to share with you how to type in Chinese.

Methods of Typing Chinese Characters

1. Pinyin Input Method

As you can see from the following image, Chinese characters are constructed by various strokes, which are relatively independent from the phonetic system. It`s not possible to list all the characters in the keyboard since there are about 80,000 characters in total. Each character has its own pronunciation, though many of them share the same phonetic syllables, which is known as pinyin. Thus, we can get a list of the characters through typing the phonetic syllables. (You can check more information about Chinese characters here.)

The phonetic syllables are constructed in three parts, which are the initial, the final, and the tone. The initial and final are constructed with the 26 English alphabet letters, the same as the ones on your keyboard. You may wonder, then, how about the tones? Well, tones are always the hard part of Chinese pronunciation for many foreigners. Fortunately, it`s not necessary to type out each tone. All you need to type are the letters. This typing method also makes many Chinese learners feel comfortable since they don`t need to memorize the exact tone of each character. When you input the letters of the initial and final, all the corresponding characters with 5 different tones will be shown. You just need to choose the one you want and ignore the others you don’t need. (You can check more information about Chinese pronunciation here.)

2. The Five-stroke Input Method(五笔输入法)

Chinese characters have many small components, and you just need to put the small components together and give them order. Each of the components are made of smaller strokes.The modern modular strokes are “扎”字法 which are regulated as the 5 one’s, “一”(横)、“丨”(竖)、 “丿”(撇)、“丶”(点)and“乛” (折).It`s also the foundation for Chinese people to learn writing characters.

五笔输入法(The five-stroke input)was very popular for a period of time, since this method is based on the stroke construction of each characters. As you can see from the following image, each letter of your keyboard represents several Chinese strokes. What you need to do is separate the character into different stroke components, find the corresponding alphabet letter representing the stroke, and then you can form the character you want.

The advantage of this method is that even if you don`t know the pronunciation of this character, you can easily type it out. With the Pinyin input method, it`s hard to type if you don`t know or are not sure about the pronunciation. This five-stroke input method has a lower error rate.

However, more and more Chinese people are taught to learn the pronunciation and characters from Pinyin in primary schools. Thus, many people feel more familiar with Pinyin. So less and less people choose to use the five-stroke input. Moreover, it`s really not easy to memorize so many small components.

3. The Handwriting Input Method(手写输入法)

This is the easiest method to understand. Unlike the Pinyin Input Method, you don`t need to know the exact pronunciation of each character; you can input by hand. You also don`t need to memorize the strokes on your keyboard, as with the Five-stroke Input Method. You can get the characters by writing on the screen.

The drawbacks of this method are you have to use the touch screen (which may not be easy), or you may find it hard to write characters. And if you can`t write with your hand in a nice and proper way, the input software may not recognize what you wrote.

Tool Recommendation

These three input methods above are very popular. You can easily acquire the input methodtool of your choice on your smartphone or computer. Below is a  list of some commonly used tools

Pinyin input method applications:

Five-stroke input method applications:

Notes

Even if you are content typing with the pinyin input method, don`t forget to practice your tones while speaking. People cannot distinguish the words without tones when talking with each other.

If you have mastered typing Chinese characters with pinyin, sometimes handwriting seems unnecessary. However, writing can help Chinese learners remember the characters more accurately and systematically. With actual writing, your muscle memory will help you remember and master these characters because by doing so, they are easier to remember.  Besides, writing with your hand is also a part of understanding Chinese culture.  Thus, I highly recommend you continue to practice handwriting.

JING CAO

Jing Cao is the chief editor at Dig Mandarin. She devotes herself to the research of Chinese langugage and how to teach Chinese as a second language better.

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