Phone fun

How to input Chinese text on your mobile phone.

On English-language mobile phones, the most common way to input text is known as multi-tapping: cycling through the three or four letters assigned to each number (pressing the “2” key three times for “C,” for instance). That works when a language has 26 characters, but Chinese has, by some estimates, 50,000. Fortunately, in the 1950s, the government codified how each of those characters was to be written, and opted for a simplified system that could be adopted throughout the country. Now, students learn some 30 standardized brush strokes, and a specific sequence in which they are to be used, in order to build any Chinese character.

For its mobile phone software, Zi Corp. has summarized those strokes into eight basic shapes, each assigned to a number on the keypad, which can be pressed in different orders for different characters. Moreover, after the first stroke is chosen, the software predicts options for the next stroke, and will display a series of final characters to choose from. With as few as two key presses, a Chinese user can select the target character she wants. That makes typing text messages in Chinese faster than English.

The software also predicts the next character through a list of common associations. For instance, the two characters that make up what in English is “China” are literally “middle” and “kingdom.” A user who types “middle” will be given “kingdom” as well as other characters that sometimes follow “middle.” The software also learns what is most commonly selected and moves it up.

For those who know the phonetic Pinyin, Zi offers an even easier method. Similar to how English predictive text input works (pressing a series of keys once each, like 2-2-7, generates possible words that use that pattern, like “car,” “bar,” and “abs”), typing in Pinyin will produce a list of possible characters, ranked by common usage. Each spelling, however, has between 10 and 100 characters — “yi,” for instance, has 100. So that list of characters can be further narrowed down by selecting one of five Chinese tones (in Mandarin, the sound “ma” can mean, among other words, “mother,” if it has a high tone, or “horse,” if it has a falling-rising tone). Zi estimates that some 70% of mobile phone users prefer the Pinyin method, similar to what is used on computer keyboards.