A few corrections to the column (recently reprinted in the email newsletter) about how Chinese is entered on keyboards. It mostly gets the answer right, but is a bit outdated.
Phonetic input methods have gotten a lot smarter over the years and now have awareness of Chinese grammar rules and word frequencies. So in a lot of cases you don’t have to select each character individually; you enter the phonetic representation (pinyin) for the entire sentence or phrase you want to type, and the software automatically figures out which characters would form a comprehensible sentence that would be pronounced that way. It doesn’t work 100% perfectly and sometimes you do need to select characters (especially when entering proper nouns) but it’s reliable enough to be a significant time saver.
Even when you’re not entering full sentences you will usually enter an entire multisyllabic Chinese word rather than just a single syllable of a word, which almost always eliminates the need to scroll through lots of possible matches.
For common words, you can usually just type the first letter of each syllable. There are enough shortcuts for enough heavily-used words that phonetic text entry is often quite fast. And of course you can combine the shortcuts and sentence/phrase entry to further speed things up.
An example of what a dramatic difference this can make: here’s a very simple sentence, “I like to listen to classical music,” entered using the Mac phonetic input system. The Windows one is comparable.
Simplified Chinese characters: 我喜欢听古典音乐
Keystrokes to enter this one character at a time as described in the column: wo2xi6huan3ting1gu2dian<down arrow><down arrow>6yin1yue<down arrow><down arrow>5
Keystrokes to enter this using modern-day phonetic input: wxhtgudyy
The column alluded to alternate input methods, but I think it oversold the difficulty somewhat. A popular one in Taiwan, for example, is “Cangjie” which is based on assigning keystrokes to the shapes of different sections of the characters. If you know how to handwrite the characters (which an educated native speaker does) and a small number of rules, you can do the equivalent of English’s “sounding out a word” to figure out how to type it. Most characters take four or fewer keystrokes in Cangjie, comparable to the number of keystrokes required for an English word.
Using Cangjie or one of the other non-phonetic input methods, a good typist can enter Chinese text at about the same speed as a good English typist entering the equivalent English text – written Chinese is usually much terser than English so it makes more sense to think of this in terms of “number of keystrokes per idea” rather than “number of keystrokes per character.”