Today is the UN’s Chinese Language Day – a day which is chosen to coincide with “Guyu” in the Chinese calendar. Guyu is celebrated in honour of the Chinese folk hero Cangjie, who is said to have created Chinese characters thousands of years ago, so we thought this was a prime opportunity to explain a little about how Chinese characters work in today’s computer-driven world.
Chinese is complicated. There are over 200 spoken dialects and each character in the Chinese “Hanzi” writing system is made up of a number of different strokes, sometimes as many as 64. Luckily, written Chinese doesn’t vary greatly, but the largest Chinese dictionaries contain around 56,000 different characters. Knowledge of 3,000–4,000 characters is apparently enough to “get by”. Even 3,000 characters is daunting compared to the English alphabet of a mere 26 letters.
This presents some interesting challenges when it comes to typing in Chinese when you have a keyboard that only has 26 keys. So how do Chinese writers achieve this? The answers are varied and ingenious!
Chinese Input Methods
Fortunately, there are not as many ways of typing Chinese text as there are spoken dialects, but there are still several different methods commonly used, which all adds to the fun. In mainland China there are two dominant ones: Pinyin and Wubi.
To use Pinyin, computer users type the transliteration of a word on a standard QWERTY keyboard in Roman characters. The computer then converts the Pinyin spelling into the correct Chinese character on the screen.
This method is generally more accessible to non-native Chinese speakers who may find it easier to rely on Roman letters and a phonetic approach. However, it does mean learning the transliteration of Chinese words, and, with many similar-sounding words (Chinese is a tonal language), it can be tricky to choose the correct one.
Selecting the intended word can slow down the typing process considerably. Once a word has been typed in Pinyin, the computer will suggest words matching this pronunciation in a pop-up window. The correct word can then be selected by using the number keys or the mouse.
Most common Pinyin input software also has a predictive text function and will suggest characters based on context and common usage. Users can also create a custom dictionary of their own frequently used characters and phrases that can help increase typing speeds. On average, though, most users will struggle to get above a rate of 50 characters per minute using the Pinyin input method.
If you want quicker typing speeds, the Wubi method is the solution. This divides the keyboard into 5 key areas and creates its own shorthand. Most characters can be written with no more than 4 keystrokes and expert typists can get up to 160 characters a minute.
The standard QWERTY keyboard is used but with additional labels on each key. These correspond to different pen strokes, and the user types out the Chinese character by selecting the right sequence of keystrokes.
This input method is quicker as it allows experienced users to acquire muscle memory – just as QWERTY touch typists do. However, there is a price to pay for speed—learning Wubi is much harder than learning Pinyin.
What About Zhuyin?
Ah, yes. Zhuyin is a Chinese input method widely used in Taiwan, and it’s often used for teaching Mandarin overseas.
Whereas Pinyin uses Roman letters to spell out Chinese characters, Zhuyin replaces syllables with symbols – essentially creating a unique alphabet. Like Pinyin, Zhuyin is based on the Mandarin pronunciation.
As with Pinyin and Wubi, standard keyboards are used, but for Zhuyin, the phonetic characters are derived from ancient Chinese characters.
As touch-screen technology becomes more ubiquitous, electronic writing tablets are widely used with input software to enable users to input characters without learning the complexities of the other systems.
Writers can use a stylus to simply draw the Chinese character on a tablet. The computer software recognises the characters based on the combination of pen strokes and converts it. The downside? It takes ages to do some characters…hence this method isn’t widely used. Also – if your handwriting/drawing is anything like mine, there’s a massive risk of producing something resembling spaghetti. Another good reason we only work with professional, native Chinese translators.
Got any more questions? Get in touch with the team if you need any support with Chinese translations (or any other language). Call +44 (0)1483 577 750 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
For more fascinating facts about Chinese translations, click here.