Learning to type?
Unless someone printed this article out and posted it to you by, I don’t know, carrier pigeon, you probably already know how to type.
But what about in your target language?
Well, if you plan to do any writing in that language other than longhand, you’ll want to be able to type.
And I don’t mean hunting and pecking for the letters—letters which might not even appear on your keyboard!
Like with practicing any skill, the more you do it, the better you’ll get. It’s that simple.
Flip the Script! How to Type Up a Storm in Another Language
The Technical Side: How to Install New Keyboards
It’s dead simple to add new foreign keyboards to your computer.
On Windows, you can change the language settings right from your taskbar. Let’s say English (United States) is marked as your primary display language.
Click on that English button and head to “Language preferences,” where you’ll be presented with the very useful “Add a language” button. Couldn’t be simpler than that!
Once you add a new one, you can switch between installed keyboards by pressing the Windows and Shift keys.
On a Mac, head up to System Preferences. Under Keyboard and Input Sources, there’s a small + symbol for you to add new choices.
After you have more than one, a small flag appears on the top menu bar of the screen—click it and you can choose a new keyboard layout at any time.
(The wording of the directions above may differ depending on what version you’re using.)
How to Learn Foreign Keyboards
It’s hard to imagine typing at speed with a foreign keyboard. I remember watching a video about a linguist and seeing her switch between typing English, Japanese and Russian without missing a beat.
It was an amazing sight! And it’s not out of reach for you and me.
In fact, I personally type in Arabic, French and English at a good speed. And if you know or are learning these languages, you can do the same!
Do You Have the Touch? Why It’s Better to Be Able to Touch Type
Your first step is to learn how to touch type. You may already know how to do this in your native language, but it’s especially important when you’re adding typing in a second language.
If you rely on looking down at the keyboard for knowing where your hands are, you’re going to be stuck pretty fast when you need letters that just aren’t there.
It is actually possible to buy little stickers you can put on your keys, but that may not work for everyone. It’s a bunch of work, and you’re limited to the languages that can fit on the keys. The truth is, you don’t need to use stickers if you don’t want to.
Instead, take it real slow.
Getting the Lay of the Land: Initial Learning and Practice
Open a new window on your computer with your foreign-language keyboard diagram as a reference, or print it out and stick it nearby.
Then, just start typing. At first, just test yourself on the keyboard diagram to internalize the layout. Make it a little game with yourself to see how many letters you can type before making a mistake.
Focus on accuracy from the beginning to avoid hitting a plateau. It’s easy to build speed with some letter combinations but always have trouble with a few—and those mistakes can add up over time to a lot of frustration.
There are a handful of websites out there that can give you customized typing lessons for whatever language you’d like.
- My favorite is called 10fastfingers. It lets you know right away if you made a mistake, but doesn’t necessarily stop you. That way you can accurately get an idea of your words per minute score after mistakes are subtracted.
- For English writing practice only, my favorite website is Typing Speed Test.
- And of course, every online language course with a typing component has typing practice built into its core instruction. Duolingo users might default to the “rearrange words” exercise, but if you switch yourself to the text input mode, you’re immediately learning much more efficiently.
- FluentU tests your typing skills through fun quizzes when you’re using the Plus plan. The multimedia questions include typing words and phrases to test how well you can produce them from memory. Spelling counts! FluentU takes real-world videos—like movie trailers, news and more—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
From my own experience, you don’t even have to put a ton of time into the basics of learning to type in another language. Even a completely different keyboard layout can be memorized after a couple of days, and you should be able to touch type competently after just one month of short daily practices.
If you just have to add a couple of accents or a handful of extra letters, those—in my experience with Arabic—can be memorized in less than an hour!
Typing at Speed: The Importance of Regular Practice
Now, if you don’t happen to be learning something like Greek, Arabic or Korean that uses a non-Latin script, you may be thinking that you don’t need to practice your typing. If a language uses the same letters as English, what’s the big deal?
Well, first, there aren’t too many commonly learned languages without any accents or additional letters.
Second, it turns out that if you’re not used to typing a language’s specific letter combinations, you’ll likely make a lot more mistakes a lot more often than you would otherwise.
Fast typists in one language may look at their hands in wonder and dismay when they try to apply the same muscle memory to a foreign language.
For example, the combinations th, ed and tion are very common in English but less so in German. And the Spanish ll and rr very rarely show up when typing English.
The best way to get better at typing is to simply type more. Choosing what to type is the question, of course. Don’t just copy down the keyboard again and again—you’ll bore yourself to tears.
Double Your Efforts: Type Your Learning Materials
In the olden days of language learning, students would often copy out passages by hand as part of their homework. This teaching method was rightly phased out, but that doesn’t mean it never helped anyone.
If you take the time to re-type some textbook dialogues or short reading passages, you’re actually doing yourself a huge favor.
By focusing so hard on the letters, making sure you get each one right, you’re indirectly giving yourself an intense reading workout.
By combining these occasional typing exercises with the ordinary typing you would do in the language—for homework, courses, chatting, et cetera—you’ll avoid plateauing and instead consistently build speed and accuracy.
Alternate Methods: Using “Shortcut” Keyboards
When you’re presented with all the myriad types of keyboards out there, it’s good to know about a couple of small shortcuts.
For one, languages like Polish and Romanian have a programmer’s layout. The name comes from programmers in those regions who find it irritating to type code when all the brackets and underscores are reassigned to other letters.
These programmer’s keyboards don’t have separate keys for the new letters. Instead, to type something like ó you just press ALT-O and the “alternate” letter appears.
Something called the US-International layout works on an interesting and related principle. It’s made for you to be able to type a wide range of alternate characters without having to switch keyboards or even take your hands off the home row.
It treats characters like ö, ê and ñ as combinations like [ ” + o ], [ ^ + e ] and [ ~ + n ]. So with the US-International keyboard turned on, all you have to do is tap these keys in succession and they’ll automatically combine into the new characters.
These are ideal for people—programmers or not—who find themselves writing or editing text in multiple languages on the regular. I personally use the US-International layout any time I might be typing in “mostly English” but switching to French here and there.
And if your other-language typing is really sporadic, there are a couple of simple keyboard shortcuts in the Microsoft Office suite that let you add the odd special character without even switching your keyboard back and forth.
You can also use various Alt commands for the same purpose.
There are even “lookalike” keyboards for languages such as Russian, where the QWERTY keys that are closest to the Russian shape are used instead of the actual Russian layout. So П would be put on the N key because it kind of looks like an N.
But like with stickers, you don’t actually need these. The other keyboards were designed for fast typing speed—and in Russian-speaking countries, everybody uses the “authentic” layout, so good luck using a computer in a hotel or library!
Besides, it really doesn’t take long to pick up new typing skills.
Many people get by in typing a foreign language without ever consciously practicing it.
It just so happens that they’re the ones hitting the Backspace key the most.
For better or worse, virtually all the writing that happens nowadays happens on computers.
And with just a little bit of conscious practice, you can shoot past being an eternally-average typist, and instead, aim for excellence.
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