How Do Chinese Use An English Computer Keyboard?


“With thousands of individual characters, ever wonder how a Chinese person sends an email?

Business cards in China are offered and accepted with both hands. It’s a sign of courtesy and respect. After a couple years of exchanging cards, I’d managed to fill a rather large desk drawer with them. One day a fit of efficiency overtook me and I decided to go in search of a Rolodex or business card organizer. It took longer than I expected; most things do in China.

It wasn’t until I’d made my purchase and returned home that it dawned on me – there is no Chinese “alphabet.” At least, not in the way we think of one. Hence, no way to organize most of my cards. Duh. Which brings me to today’s topic, “How do Chinese use an English computer keyboard?”

Firstly, there are such things as Chinese computer keyboards. However, they’re not standardized and not widely used. There are also writing pad interfaces that work well for Chinese characters. However, most Chinese rely on software to change their keystrokes into Chinese text.

Chinese Keyboard

Chinese and English Keyboard

Perhaps the two most  common software transcription methods in mainland China are Wubi and Pinyin. Wubi means “five pen” or “five stroke” and is based on the idea that Chinese characters can be categorized with five fundamental pen strokes. In contrast, the Pinyin method is based on pronunciation of Chinese “syllables.” Each method has advantages and drawbacks.

In it’s simplest form, Wubi could be input with just the number pad of the keyboard: one for horizontal strokes, two for vertical strokes, three for downward right-to-left strokes, four for dot strokes or downward left-to-right strokes, and five for all other strokes. To utilize this method, users must be familiar with the correct order of strokes, which is actually fairly easy to learn.

Once a user has input the correct strokes in the correct order, Wubi software presents a number of possible Chinese characters from which to choose. This method is probably most suited to individuals with Chinese language background.

Pinyin, on the other hand, is a method more suited to individuals with an English language background. Pinyin breaks Chinese down into “Romanized” syllables. However, because Chinese is a tonal language, the user must also be able to select the correct tone for each syllable.

Mandarin Chinese has four basic tones. They are: first tone – “high and level,” second tone – “rising,” third tone – “falling then rising,” and fourth tone – “falling.” There is also a fifth tone which can be thought of as “neutral.” Cantonese is more complex, with between 6 and 9 tones depending upon the dialect.

A classic example of the difference tones make is with the syllable “ma.” With first tone the word means mother, with second tone the word means hemp, with third tone the word is horse, with fourth tone it means scold, and with the fifth tone the word becomes an interrogative often used at the end of a sentence. Here is an example of a “silly sentence” using the word ma.

Pinyin: māma mà mǎ de má ma?
English: “Is Mother scolding the horse’s hemp?”
(source: Wikipedia)