Think about how easy and natural it is to type an English word. Writing a word down on paper and typing a word on a computer are done using the same process – letter by letter. Made a mistake? Pop back and fix the spelling error. It’s easy to overlook how simple the whole process is, because it is done so naturally. But, users of the Roman alphabet have it easy in the world of computers. Things don’t go as smoothly in other languages around the world, which have had to adapt to the now-ubiquitous QWERTY keyboard.
A little more than one-sixth of the world’s population uses the Chinese language. Estimates say a Chinese speaker needs to know 2,000 different characters to achieve basic literacy, with well-educated speakers knowing upwards of 5,000. 5,000 characters aren’t going to fit onto a keyboard – at least, not one anyone will want to use.
Today’s keyboards seem naturally suited to the Roman alphabet, but it’s worth keeping in mind that personal computers were, at the start, a Western innovation. No one knew computing would become an indispensable part of daily life for people the whole world over. Early innovators were probably more concerned about making computers practical in general than with thinking about difficulties Chinese speakers would have with the new technology.
One of the first people to give serious thought to the problem of Chinese computing was Chu Bong-Foo, who developed a system using 24 “root” parts of Chinese characters in the 1970s. His method, called Cangjie, created a unique set of composition rules for characters that dictated which combination of roots would make up which character. The rules were mostly consistent with the logic behind the Chinese language, but they still came with a steep learning curve thanks to those unique composition rules – something still true of Cangjie today. Regardless, it remains one of the most widely-used Chinese input methods.
Despite Chu Bong-Foo’s laudable efforts to make Cangjie the gold standard of Chinese computing (he put his creation in the public domain, eschewing royalties in an effort to make his creation as widely available as possible), his input method is only one of many used today. None of those methods have created anything that the resembles the natural simplicity of typing with the Roman alphabet – and in turn has had some unexpected effects on the way Chinese speakers use and interact with their own language.
The Chinese language is made up of characters, each of which represents a syllable in the spoken language. A phonetic alphabet exists for both kinds of written Chinese: pinyin for Simplified Chinese and zhuyin for Traditional Chinese. Pinyin uses the Roman alphabet to show the pronunciation of characters, while zhuyin uses an older set of 37 letters that function in the same way as pinyin. These alphabets are only used for teaching words – once the pronunciation of a character has been memorized, the written phonetic spelling of the word is rendered unimportant, for the purposes of using the language.
That is, phonetic spelling was unimportant – until computers came along. Today, the phonetic system of typing is the most widely used for Chinese speakers. Users type the phonetic spelling of the word using pinyin or zhuyin, then add a tone mark. A box will appear with the most likely characters. After selecting the desired character, the user will be presented with another box containing the characters that most commonly follow the first character. If the next character isn’t in that box, the user types the second word as usual.
In that sense, typing in Chinese is similar to English – done by “spelling” the word. It’s the extra step of character selection that slows the process down. As a result, several other methods have been developed, using different approaches designed to be faster. Cangjie is one of those methods, accompanied by Wubi, Boshiamy, and several other less popular input methods. Most, like Cangjie, are based on unique rules for the composition of a Chinese character, essentially resulting in an encoding system. Over time, the location of the keys that make up a character is memorized, without thought given to those actual composition rules or the character roots used. Once learned and mastered, they are the fastest methods, but they don’t come any closer to a system that mirrors the natural production of the written Chinese language.
As it turns out, that’s becoming a problem for students in Chinese speaking countries. As computers become more widely used and handwriting is used less, the need to know how to write Chinese characters is decreasing. Computers represent a fundamental shift in the way students produce the written Chinese language, and have led to what is now being termed character amnesia. Some students are literally forgetting how to write. This starts with the most complex, least used characters, and works down from there. The ubiquity of the phenomena is debated, but it has become an important issue.
Users of the Roman alphabet likely need not worry about a similar trend – our familiar 26 letters are extremely simple, making forgetting much more difficult. A character made up of 15 strokes, on the other hand, could be forgotten easily. Reading skills don’t suffer, as students get the same amount of practice as they did before computers. Writing skills are now more rarely used, something that isn’t necessarily a functional problem for Chinese speakers. It is a cultural issue, and it appears there is no easy way to reconcile past and present.
Older Chinese speakers, on the other hand, experience a different set of problems. For many who have been out of school for a while, exact knowledge of the phonetic makeup of words can be lost. In English, native speakers accustomed to the language tend to speak quickly, sometimes slurring words without pronouncing each word correctly (nor would you want to – try consciously doing it for one day). Chinese is no different, and since the phonetic alphabet used to be irrelevant in the written language, it’s led to attrition in knowledge of the proper phonetic makeup of some words.
Eric Lee, a software engineer in Kaohsiung, Taiwan says that he often needs to guess at the exact phonetic makeup of a given word, sometimes using trial-and-error to input the correct zhuyin. Others consult dictionaries to find the correct phonetic makeup of characters – neither time-efficient nor satisfying. Composition-based methods, then, are better suited to the older generation in theory, but the high learning curve discourages many. After all, there is at least one thing that is true across all languages – members of older generations didn’t grow up with computers. Just like English, it’s difficult for typists to memorize the keymap in the first place, let alone use it efficiently.
An English typo is, in most cases, a misspelled word. In Chinese, though, you can’t misspell a character. So, what do Chinese typos look like? Usually, they amount to the wrong character with the same or similar phonetic makeup. Over time, typos like these have become so familiar to heavy computer users that many readers can read a sentence containing one without confusion. To those unfamiliar, those typos can offer up some unexpected surprises.
A different standard for what a typo is requires a different standard for error checking. Error checking programs for the Chinese language are usually based on algorithms that logically segment sentences into chunks of two or three characters, then checks how likely it is that those chunks are correct. If two characters that would never otherwise go together are found, the program flags that chunk as containing an error. Like any algorithm-based program, it isn’t perfect, but it has improved with time and development.
Chinese computing has been improved by leaps and bounds, but in terms of arguably the most important aspect of typing – speed – the Chinese language can’t compete on a playing field designed for languages that are completely dissimilar. Yang Yaju, a Chinese language teacher at National Sun Yat-Sen University, remarked, “For me, typing English is much faster than Chinese…Besides, computer software can check and correct English easily, but it doesn’t work as well in Chinese.” Chinese computing is in danger of failing to keep up with the needs of its users.
So, what does the future hold? Predictive algorithms are improving, cutting down on the need for selection boxes in phonetic input methods. They aren’t perfect, but they are faster. The attentive typist can spot and fix typos fairly quickly. Still, that leaves the most common methods of Chinese computing completely lacking in the richness and complexity of the natural written language. The practicality issue is being addressed, but the cultural problem of character amnesia persists.
That said, there is now an input method that could be ideally suited for Chinese – the touchscreen. Touchscreens allow Chinese speakers to use their written language naturally, by drawing the character – just as the QWERTY keyboard allows English speakers to use their language naturally. It sounds like a natural and fruitful marriage. You can see it in action on the iPhone in the video below, but this input method is becoming widely available on tablets and smartphones in general.
That marriage might not turn out to be an ideal one. In an authorized Apple reseller store in downtown Kaohsiung, the iPad 2 and several Mac computers are on display. One Mac computer is accompanied by a trackpad – another natural fit for writing Chinese characters. I asked a store employee which input method he preferred. He didn’t need to think before replying, “Zhuyin. It’s much faster.” as he demonstrated using the phonetic input method with predictive text. He moved to the trackpad and began tracing the characters with his finger, before saying, “Writing characters takes too long.”
As part of this story, some interviews were conducted in Mandarin Chinese. Translations are mine.