Master Chinese Typing Skills quickly on Phones and Laptops
Typing in Chinese can seem like a complete mystery to those who have have never tried it. How do you even begin to use a keyboard to type out all the different strokes for Chinese characters? Do you need a keyboard that has Chinese characters on it or can you use a regular QWERTY keyboard? Is the process the same on a phone and on a laptop or completely different?
The answers to all these questions are actually relatively simple. There are several systems that can be used to type in Chinese. This article will cover the 2 most popular - the pinyin system and the zhuyin system.
The Pinyin System
The pinyin system is based on phonetics or word sounds and can be carried out using a regular QWERTY keyboard to type out the sounds made when speaking Chinese characters. Once these sounds are typed, you will be able to select the correct Chinese character from a list of those that correspond with that sound. We'll elaborate on the details later. For now please see a pinyin chart detailing all the relevant sounds.
It's noteworthy that the pinyin system is only useful for typing in Mandarin as the pronunciation of characters is different in different dialects such as Cantonese. If you don't know any pinyin or Mandarin then we recommend checking out the pinyin trainer app below.
Pinyin Step 1: Installing a Pinyin Keyboard
First things first, you don't need to buy a Chinese keyboard in order to type Chinese! You can type out your pinyin using a regular QWERTY keyboard once the correct keyboard is installed on your device. The installation process is very easy to do on Apple, Windows and nearly all smartphones.
For iOS enter settings > General > Keyboard > Add New Keyboard.
For Android enter Settings > System > Languages and Input > Add New Keyboard
This will be a simplified Mandarin keyboard for most Chinese learners but if you're learning traditional characters then you can also choose to install that version.
Pinyin Step 2: Understanding Your Pinyin Keyboard
So now you understand that each letter on your QWERTY keyboard can be used to type out Mandarin words phonetically but how do you go from typing using the Latin alphabet to having Chinese characters written down on the screen? And what happens if you type a very common phoneme such as "zhi"? Do you need to add tones to your words as you type? Let's look at some examples below.
Let's take a simple word 我 (wǒ), meaning I or me. To type it you must first type the letters w and o. Upon doing this, you'll see something similar to this list. All you have to do is select the correct version of "wo" from the list and you've just typed your first Chinese word!
In this way, even extremely common phonemes like "zhi", which could be 之, 只, 知, 直 or 至 (among many others) can be easily selected by the typer. This also means you don't need to worry about tones while typing! All you need to do is know how to pronounce the word you're trying to spell and be able to recognise and select the correct character(s) from the list.
For further examples check out the below video!
Pinyin Step 3: Writing more than one word
Once you understand how to write one word correctly using your pinyin keyboard, writing longer sentences is easy because they follow the exact same logic - type the phoneme and select the correct Chinese character. The keyboard software is also very smart, meaning you can often type a whole sentence such as 我爱中文 (Wǒ ài zhōngwén) or "I love Chinese" and it will automatically work out which characters you mean to type.
Be careful though! Sometimes the software does get things wrong, especially when using names or uncommon characters in long sentences. It takes some practice but you will start to learn when the keyboard prediction is likely to be accurate and when it isn't.
While typing in pinyin is a simple process on the surface, it is important to know the basic structure of Chinese language and grammar in order to ensure the keyboard recognises the words you're trying to type. Luckily for you, we have tonnes of free online resources to help you do this. Alternatively you could even book some course time with one of our expert teachers!
Pinyin Step 4: Practice!
While you can spend hours making sure you're well versed on your grammar and recognise as many characters as possible, there is no substitute for actually typing in Chinese as much as you physically can. At first it can be really difficult to do this without making mistakes but we promise if you persevere you'll pick it up in no time and be able to type without thinking!
Texting in Pinyin
One question we get asked a lot is whether typing Chinese with your phone is more difficult than on a laptop. Actually it's exactly the same. You just type out your pinyin and select the correct character. However, there are many differences to be aware of when texting such as common acronyms and etiquette. Check out the below video to find out more!
The Zhuyin System
Whereas the pinyin system is the primary typing system in mainland China, the zhuyin system (also known as bopomofu) is the dominant system in Taiwan. It's different from pinyin in several key ways:
Zhuyin vs. Pinyin: The Keyboard
Firstly, rather than using the Latin letters on a QWERTY keyboard, zhuyin has its own set of phonemes. This means you either need to buy a new keyboard with these keys on it or install a keyboard and memorise which QWERTY keys correspond with which zhuyin phonemes. The process for installing the zhuyin keyboard on your device is the same as it is for pinyin - go to your keyboard settings and search for the zhuyin keyboard. Some more modern computers are even being made with zhuyin keyboards already installed.
Zhuyin vs. Pinyin: Typing Method
While the phonetic characters look completely different in zhuyin and pinyin, the method of typing is essentially the same - enter the correct phonemes for the Chinese character you're trying to type and then select it from the list. For a complete list of each phonetic character and how it relates to pinyin see below.
This video also gives really detailed instructions on how to use each character!
Zhuyin vs. Pinyin: Pros & Cons
The system you choose to use will depend on why you are trying to learn it as each system has benefits and disadvantages. Pinyin is more useful for learning simplified characters, it's more widely used and more likely to appear in textbooks. It's also easier to learn if you already use the Latin alphabet in your native language as you don't have to learn any new symbols.
Zhuyin is more useful if you're studying in Taiwan or if you want to learn how to use traditional characters. It also gives you a deeper understanding of Chinese language since the symbols for each phoneme are often based on elements of Chinese characters. Furthermore, each phoneme corresponds with a sound that is made in Mandarin i.e. these symbols are designed to generate Mandarin sounds. Pinyin on the other hand uses phonetic units that were originally designed for other languages so certain letters like "q" will be pronounced differently depending on which Mandarin word they are used it, which can be confusing for students.
Zhuyin vs. Pinyin: Practice
Regardless of the system you choose, practice is still the only way to improve to a high level! Both systems are great for learning to type in Chinese and whichever you choose we are here to help you along the way. Best of luck!
Now you know how to type in Chinese, why not supplement that skill by improving your Chinese vocabulary and grammar with one of our expert Mandarin teachers?
We have both private and group courses available for all levels of Mandarin and Cantonese learners. Get in touch today and see how we can help you!