Over the past couple years of half-heartedly studying Chinese I’ve come across a good number of computer-based tools to help in my studies.
ChinesePod, Google’s IME, Adsotrans and Google Translator, Wenlin and a bunch of great freeware and Firefox plugins – just to name a few.
However, about two months ago I was casually browsing the local diànzǐ chéng and I stumbled on a little USB input device that allows you to write Chinese as an input method for your computer. I finally pulled it out of the box and played with it the other day.
First, for those that haven’t attempted to input Chinese on their computers, there are several ways to do so. The most common method is to use a pinyin-based IME (of which I prefer Google’s). With an IME you simply activate it, type in the pinyin, choose the characters and it outputs the hànzì.
This works well for us laowai, but is a bit slow for Chinese typists. For them a similar method is used, but instead of inputing the pinyin and selecting the characters, they often use rather ingenious software that attributes strokes to the keys of a standard keyboard. By inputting the strokes of the desired character you are able to much more efficiently output Chinese (100+ characters a minute – faster than you can say it!) – that is if you can remember what the goddamn stroke order is.
And now, for a mere 35 RMB, I have a third way. The little USB-powered tablet is about 6.5″ x 3″ with a small writing area where you use an included plastic stylus to write the strokes of Chinese characters. The included software then interprets this and outputs the proper character.
In my testing of it I was all over the dictionary with what characters it identified as what I wrote. However, when the steadier hand of Maggie gave it a go, it was bang on 100% of the time so long as she wrote the characters properly (Chinese tend to revere “messy” handwriting as “art” more than we do in the West).
It’s not fast. Or at least Maggie didn’t feel it would save her any time in ordering stuff on Taobao. However, for a student of Chinese, such as myself, it’s awesome. It is pretty unforgiving when it comes to stroke order and placement, forcing you to practice and remember how to write things properly.
Now PC tablets are nothing new, and if you’re not in China, you’ll likely be stuck buying one of the more expensive versions designed more for graphic applications than handwriting practice. However, if you’re in China and looking to improve your Chinese writing, with a $5 price tag, this is a great little tool.