Non-Latin Languages Input (Series): Mandarin Chinese

When talk about why Asian websites often full of links and therefore look overwhelming, one of the reasons you often hear is:

“It’s slower and more cumbersome for the Asian users to type non-Latin characters such as in Chinese or Japanese, so it’s easier for them to click (on links) than to use the search box.”

This isn’t true. Typing non-Latin characters on a keyboard is not as challenging as you thought especially for native speakers. In most cases, it could be faster for Chinese users to input Chinese characters than in English or than some of us typing in English.

In this series, we will show you how non-Latin language works for digital input. Our aim is to demystify non-Roman character input and to debunk the myth that they are cumbersome, complicated and slo to do.

First in this series: Chinese characters digital input.

 
 Chinese Pinyin input method

Chinese Pinyin input method

 

Chinese language in a nutshell

Although there are 50,000 characters in Chinese language, only 20,000 characters are commonly used. There are four basic tones and a fifth neutral tone. Many characters have the same sound. Therefore tones are important when speaking Chinese to differentiate words from each other.

There are two ways to input Chinese characters digitally (desktop or mobile).

Pinyin (拼音)

 The first way is by using the Pinyin system. Pinyin (拼音) literally means “spelt sounds. It’s the romanisation of the Chinese characters based on their pronunciation.

The Pinyin system was developed in the 1950s and it includes four diacritics denoting tones. Pinyin without tone marks is used to spell Chinese words in Latin alphabets, and also in certain computer input methods to enter Chinese characters.

Both Simplified Mandarin (used in Mainland China, Malaysia and Singapore) and Traditional Mandarin (used in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore) characters are entered using Pinyin. By using Pinyin, Chinese users are able to use the same keyboard as the one we use in the West to input Chinese characters.

Example

To type 白色衬衫 (which means white shirt) on a search box, we will need to use enter the pinyin of these words, which are ‘bai se chen shan’.

When enter ‘bai’, a list of words with the same pronunciations appear and you choose the character that you’re looking for. In this case, we want the first character in the list (which means white). Same for the other character - se (which means colour).

 [RIGHT] Type ‘bai’ and a list of characters with the same pronunciation appear (although some of them might be in different tones). You then choose the character you want. [LEFT] Same applies to the second word.

[RIGHT] Type ‘bai’ and a list of characters with the same pronunciation appear (although some of them might be in different tones). You then choose the character you want. [LEFT] Same applies to the second word.

Now we have 白色 ‘white colour’, let’s continue with the second part of the search - shirt (chen shan).

 Continue typing ‘chen’ and ‘shan’ to input the words for ‘shirt’ in Chinese

Continue typing ‘chen’ and ‘shan’ to input the words for ‘shirt’ in Chinese

Shortcuts

However, there’s a shortcut that you can use. For commonly used words, you only need to type the first alphabet of each word and a series of word combinations will appear. For example:

  • Instead of typing the full words baise, you can just type bs for 白色;or 
  • Instead of baisechenshan, you can just type bscs for 白色衬衫

This makes typing much quicker.

 Shortcut for Chinese characters input

Shortcut for Chinese characters input

Handwriting input

A lot of smartphones and touchscreen devices has built-in writing recognition for Chinese characters, where you can write the Chinese characters and the system shows you the character you wrote, or ones closer to the one you write even if you don’t have a great handwriting.

 You write the character and the system will recognise the character and display it in the list

You write the character and the system will recognise the character and display it in the list

Other shortcuts - Word(s) Prediction

Similar to English input method, words predictions are also available for Chinese input. In the example below, once I type 白 (white), even before I type the second character se - 色 (colour), a list of predictive words are shown. All I have to do now is to select the third one in the list.

 After typing 白 (white), the predictive words appear. In this case, we want the third word in the list - 色 (colour)

After typing 白 (white), the predictive words appear. In this case, we want the third word in the list - 色 (colour)

The predictive feature is also available for handwriting input. I wrote bai, the first word in the list is 白 (white) which is the word I am after. But the second option in the list also includes the second word I’ll need , which is 白色 (white colour). Same applies to the word shirt 衬衫, I wrote the first character and the options predicted the second word I might be looking for.

 Predictive words are also available for Chinese handwriting input

Predictive words are also available for Chinese handwriting input

Faster or slower?

It might seem slow and complicated to input Chinese character digitally to most people who don’t understand the language. 

Like any skills, once we are familiar with it and practice it a lot, we will be good at it. In fact, if you observe Chinese users typing Chinese characters versus typing in English, you will quickly see that they are much quicker in the former than the latter.

Let’s also look at the number of typing/tapping required to input ‘White Shirt’ / 白色衬衫:

  • In English: 11 taps are required (10 characters plus the space in between
  • In Chinese: If we use the shortcut ‘bscs’, only 5 taps are required (the four character plus tapping the space bar once at the end to choose the first words in the list)

Now, 5 versus 11. Which is faster to input?

What’s next?

If you want to know what this means to you as a designer and how to design for Pinyin text entry for countries such as China including Hong Kong, Taiwan and certain parts of Malaysian and Singapore, get in touch with us.