Computer-based writing skills are the speaking skills of the information age. If you speak a language, you can communicate with anyone in the same physical space as you are, but if you can type a language, you can communicate with anyone who can read that language—anywhere, and at any time.
These skills are important to develop at any stage, but I wholeheartedly believe that learning to type early will benefit your language learning in important ways.
This article will teach you everything you need to know to set up your personal computer for typing in a foreign language, so that you can start practicing your skills right away.
Note: If you wish to learn how to text in a foreign language using your mobile device, that information will be found in an upcoming article.
How to Change Your Keyboard Language
The most efficient and direct way to learn to type in a foreign language is to change the input language of your keyboard.
Contrary to how it may seem, this will not require you to purchase a new keyboard, nor make any physical changes to your existing computer hardware.
Changing the input language of a keyboard does not physically change your keyboard; instead, it changes what happens when the keys of the keyboard are pressed.
For example, the English language keyboard layout is called the “QWERTY” keyboard, and is so-named because the first six “letter keys” on the board, when pressed, give you this:
If you change your input language to French, on the other hand, and hit those same six keys, you’ll get:
If you change it to Korean, you’ll get another sequence entirely:
Again, the changed letters you see here result not from the use of different physical keyboard buttons, but from the choice of a different language keyboard option from within the existing software.
If you want to learn to type quickly and efficiently in your target language, the best method is to learn how to change your keyboard input language to your target language on-demand, and then learn how to use that keyboard.
The instructions for changing your keyboard layout will differ depending on the operating system of your computer.
- Microsoft Windows users, click here for Microsoft’s official instructions.
- Apple macOS users, click here for Apple’s official instructions.
Those instructions will show you how to:
- Find the appropriate layout and access it on your computer
- Switch quickly between input methods using keyboard shortcuts.
To help you grow accustomed to the new keyboard layout, both Windows and macOS have an option that allows you to view the keyboard layout on your computer screen while you’re typing. Naturally, these on-screen keyboard tools are best for those who are skilled in touch-typing, and who can type without looking at the computer keys:
- Microsoft Windows: On-Screen Keyboard
- Apple macOS: Keyboard Viewer
If you need to look at the keyboard keys in order to type, then I recommend that you purchase bilingual keyboard stickers. These stickers can be cheaply purchased for any language and keyboard type, and will allow you to label your keyboard keys with the symbols used by both your native keyboard, and the keyboard of your target language.
Such stickers can be easily found on Amazon.com, and also can be purchased directly from dedicated sticker vendors like KeyShorts and 4keyboard.
Alternative Keyboard Input Methods
If changing your keyboard language is too difficult, complex, or intimidating for your current circumstances, there are a number of secondary tools you can use to type in a foreign language while keeping your keyboard settings as-is.
Input Method Editors (IMEs)
The best and most comprehensive of these tools is Google Input Tools, a free Input Method Editor (IME) that works for 121 individual languages.
To use Google Input Tools:
- Visit their Try it Out page
- Select your target language from the language menu above the text editor.
- Start typing, drawing, or manually inputting characters in your target language.
Google Input Tools’ User Interface, with Korean language input selected.
Google Input Tools is available on any modern web-browser, and can also be downloaded for use with Chrome or Windows.
In addition to Google Input Tools, Google has also made two other language-specific IMEs available for download:
- Google Pinyin Input Method (for Chinese languages)
- Google Japanese Input (for Japanese)
If you’re learning a language that shares a majority of symbols with the keyboard you already use (German’s QWERTZ and English’s QWERTY, for example) you may not need to change your keyboard layout at all. Instead, you can just use keyboard shortcuts to generate the symbols your native keyboard is missing.
- Accented letters (á, é, ö, ü)
- Unique letters (ç, ß)
- Unique punctuation marks (¡,¿)
To use these characters from a standard QWERTY keyboard, you need to know a series of keyboard shortcuts that are unique to your particular operating system. On Windows, they are called ALT Codes, and on macOS, they are called accent codes.
Most operating systems and word processing programs have a “Symbols” menu, which will allow you to pick accented characters/other symbols out of a list, and insert them directly into a text. How this menu is accessed, and which symbols it contains will vary from program to program. For more details, access the Help menu of your chosen word processor.
How You Should Learn to Type
Ultimately, the utility of knowing how to type in a foreign language is dependent on how often you will communicate in your target language through the medium of typed text:
- For language learners who type daily, I believe learning to touch-type at a comfortable speed using the native keyboard layout should be a top priority.
- For everyone else, any of the above strategies will work; just choose the one that’s most comfortable for you.
Here are a few final recommendations, depending on your current typing skills and target language:
If you can already touch type:
- Avoid stickers.
- Learn to type by “feel”, using a temporary visual aid if necessary (i.e. an on-screen keyboard, or other picture of layout).
- Train yourself to type faster using typing tutors or speed tests.
If you cannot touch type (you “hunt and peck”):
- Change your keyboard layout, then use the stickers to help you type.
- Otherwise, use Google Input Tools.
If you’re learning a language with a similar keyboard layout to your own:
- Learn the new, native layout.
- Use your own, normal layout, but learn the ALT/accent codes.
- Use your own, normal layout, but rely on your operating system’s symbols menu where possible.
And there you go! The above-mentioned tools and methods are all you need to get started typing in your target language right away.
Depending on your tech-savviness and interest in learning to type, we’ve provided a variety of options, any of which can be used to help you compose documents, messages, and status updates, all from the comfort of your home computer.
Though learning to touch type in the target language layout will always be the most effective and natural option, it can be challenging and time-consuming, so don’t hesitate to try some of the more simpler input methods until you get comfortable enough with normal-speed typing.
Now, I think that’s enough typing from me. Now, it’s your turn!
Leave a comment below, and let us know your experiences with typing in a foreign language, and how well the above methods work for you!