Computers have provided many tools for learning Mandarin Chinese. There are all sorts of applications for studying Mandarin vocabulary, grammar, and Chinese characters, allowing us to conveniently practice and reinforce our language skills.
Perhaps the greatest convenience that computers offer for non-native Mandarin speakers is the ability to write Chinese characters. What previously took years of study, can now be accomplished in a matter of minutes, using the computer and a familiar input method such as Pinyin.
What Is Pinyin?
Since second-language learners are usually not familiar with Chinese characters, various phonetic systems are used to teach the sounds of Chinese characters. The most popular of these is Pinyn, which uses the Western Roman alphabet to represent the pronunciation of Chinese characters. The character 你, for example, means "you" and is pronounced nǐ (or "nee" with a falling and rising tone).
Besides its use as a phonetic transcription, Pinyin can also be used as a computer input method to produce Chinese characters. Most computer operating systems support some kind of input method that supports Pinyin input. To produce the character 你, for example, simply type "ni" while using one of these input methods.
Input Methods For Windows
Microsoft Windows has several features for displaying and producing Chinese characters. Accessing these features differs according to which verion of Windows is being used. Windows XP, for example, requires the installation of the "East Asian language display" files, a simple operation that is explained in my guide to Setting Up Windows XP for Mandarin Input.
Both Windows Vista and Windows 7 support Chinese characters without any extra software. You should be able to view Chinese documents and web pages the first time the system is booted. Being able to type Chinese characters, however, may require a few extra steps.
Support for Microsoft Windows input methods is found in the "Regional and Language Options" section of the control panel. The procedure for Windows XP is illustrated in my guide, which is similar to the steps required to install an input method in Windows Vista or Windows 7.
Input Methods For Linux
There are several Chinese input methods for Linux, but the emerging leader appears to be iBus, which is available for most up-to-date versions of Linux and other UNIX-type operating systems such as BSD. An older input method called SCIM is still available, and can be used for many languages besides Chinese.
iBus and SCIM should be available on the software repositories for your version of Linux. Some Linux distributions such as Ubuntu come with iBus pre-installed. The input methods are configured via the languages settings of your Linux system.
Online Input Methods
There are several online tools which convert Pinyin input to Chinese characters. These online tools are useful if you cannot install an input method on your computer, or if you are using someone else's computer. The online input methods are not as convenient as a locally-installed tool, since you have to cut and paste the resulting Chinese characters.
One of these online tools is i2Pinyin, available at i2Pinyin.com. This input tool has an online keyboard which can be clicked with the mouse or activated with the computer keyboard. As you type in the input box, character suggestions appear, saving you from typing the complete pinyin word. The output appears to be limited to simplified characters. The organization that developed i2Pinyin has created other online input tools such as i2bopomo for zhuyin input and i2cangjie for Cangjie input. These latter two input methods are primarily used by native speakers of Mandarin.
Another useful online input tool is InputKing, which supports many Asian, Indian, and European languages. A good selection of Chinese input methods are available for both traditional and simplified characters.
The Pinyin version of InputKing is quite easy to use and includes a translating Mandarin / English dictionary. Input can be switched from Chinese to English, and highlighted words are automatically entered in the dictionary search box.
When typing Pinyin, InputKing presents a selection box allowing to choose the appropriate chararacter, or scroll for more choices. Characters can be selected with the scroll buttons on your keyboard, or with the number keys. This selection technique will be familiar to anyone who has used a locally installed input method on a Windows or Linux computer.