How Chinese Conquered QWERTY

TECHNOLOGY

Conventional wisdom of the past 200 years held that China would have to abandon character-based writing and embrace alphabetization in order to prosper from world trade and technological change. Today, Chinese is a world script and China is an IT giant. How did that happen? (Los Angeles Review of Books)

Get to know your QWERTY with these free, challenging keyboarding games.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

This standard Taiwanese keyboard has the traditional QWERTY keyboard with Latin letters, as well as the zhuyin (phonetic), cangjie (geometric shape), and dayi (stroke order) input methods. Illustration by Zamoeux, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-3.0

This standard Taiwanese keyboard has the traditional QWERTY keyboard with Latin letters, as well as the zhuyin (phonetic), cangjie (geometric shape), and dayi (stroke order) input methods.
Illustration by Zamoeux, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-3.0

Discussion Ideas

  • What is QWERTY?
    • QWERTY describes the standard layout on keyboards for languages that use Latin script. (QWERTY are the first five letter keys on the top left of the keyboard.)
    • QWERTY is WYSIWYG—what you see is what you get. The author interviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books is less charitable: “We use the computer keyboard in a dumb, what-you-type-is-what-you-get kind of way. In all but rare instances, we assume a one-to-one correspondence between the symbols on the keys we strike and the symbols that we want to appear on the screen. Press the button marked ‘Q’ and ‘Q’ appears. It’s just that simple.”

 

 

 

This is an interface of a Chinese input method, showing the need to choose an appropriate word out of a list of options. The word typed is "Wikipedia,” but the options shown include (from top to bottom) Wikipedia, Uncyclopedia, Wiki, Crisis, and Rules Violation. Illustration by Rime-devel, courtesy Wikimedia. GNU General Public License

This is an interface of a Chinese input method, showing the need to choose an appropriate word out of a list of options. The word typed is “Wikipedia,” but the options include (from top to bottom) Wikipedia, Uncyclopedia, Wiki, Crisis, and Rules Violation.
Illustration by Rime-devel, courtesy Wikimedia. GNU General Public License

  • So how did a Bronze-Age script outwit Silicon Valley?
    • Chinese typists actually use QWERTY keyboards, but in an entirely different way than Western typists do.
      • In China, the QWERTY keyboard is ‘smart,’ meaning clicking a key/letter initiates an algorithm based on either the letter’s phonetic sound or root shape. It’s a sort of predictive text, where the algorithm guesses what the typist wants.
        • The author describes a simple scenario in which a keyboard is equipped with a phonetic input editor: “[T]he moment I strike the letter Q, the system is off and running, trying to figure out what I want. With the first clue, the IME [input method editor] immediately starts showing me options or ‘candidates’ in a pop-up menu that follows me along on screen—in this case, Chinese characters, names, or phrases whose phonetic value begins with Q, such as Qingdao or qigong … The moment I hit the second button—let’s say U—the IME immediately changes up its recommendations, now giving me only characters that have pronunciations starting with ‘Qu.’”
        • Chinese input methods also include abbreviations. bj, bej, or bjing will all offer ‘Beijing’ as an option, for instance.

 

  • How are Western IT professionals experimenting with the QWERTY keyboard?

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Los Angeles Review of Books: It’s Time to Get Over QWERTY—A Q&A with Tom Mullaney on alphabets, Chinese characters, and computing

Free Typing Games!

BBC Languages: Chinese (including vocabulary, games, and songs)

4 responses to “How Chinese Conquered QWERTY

  1. Pingback: 11 Things We Learned This Week | Nat Geo Education Blog·

  2. Pingback: 11 Things We Learned This Week | Nat Geo Education Blog·

  3. Pingback: How Chinese Conquered QWERTY — Nat Geo Education Blog – Welcome to the World of Ekasringa Avatar!·

  4. China’s ideographic writing system is very interesting and it is indeed fascinating how the Chinese have got around the problem of using a keyboard designed for the Latin alphabet and adapted it to suit their own needs. Using just a standard ‘QWERTY’ keyboard of relatively few keys they can transcribe any spoken Chinese word into the many-character system of written Chinese. Fascinating.

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