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Smooth traditional Chinese input in Ubuntu

With the latest version of Ubuntu (I’m currently running 10.04, Lucid Lynx), there has been some changes to the input of complex characters such as Chinese. The introduction of the IBus software followed by some minor tweaking has virtually quadrupled my typing speed in Chinese, something I want to help other people to achieve. It’s a matter of making a few changes in the preferences, but even though it’s very simple, I failed to find the correct setup on my own. It was (thanks!) who showed me how to do it and I would now like to repay the favour by spreading the word.

The problem

In earlier versions of Ubuntu, SCIM was a popular input method, and it worked alright for simplified Chinese. However, when entering traditional characters, the system broke down completely and the user was often forced to select every single character individually, sometimes having to browse through dozens of entries to find the correct one. If the program was able to guess any multiple-character words at all, they were always in simplified Chinese. To type quickly in Chinese, there has to be extensive word lists available so the computer can guess what word you want to type; it works a little bit like T9 on mobile phones.

This made typing any larger volumes of text in traditional Chinese a real pain, and it has been a major curse for me for quite a while. Look at the text on my Chinese blog and consider for a moment that all those character were individually chosen by me, not automatically by a piece of software as it’s meant to be. But, no more, those sad days of frustration and despair are gone!

Let’s get down to how to actually setup the input to work properly.

The solution

This is so simple that instructions shouldn’t be needed, but since I failed, there might be others who need help as well.

1. Follow these general guidelines to set up IBus as your preferred input system for complex characters.
2. Open the preferences for IBus (has to be version 1.2 or later) by right-clicking the icon in the tray; this is where you add various input methods.
3. The method you’re looking for is under “Chinese” or “漢語“ and is simply called “pinyin”, but there are several different ones; you are looking for the one with only the 拼 (pin) character on it, not the one with the same character and “ALL” written below it.
4. You can tweak the settings for this input method a bit, such as choosing to have traditional as the default. You can easily shift between simplified and traditional, as well as Chinese and English.
5. Press ctrl + space to switch input on off, press shift to switch between English and Chinese, and that’s about it.

This is the input method you want.

The result is fantastic! The database of words that’s being used here covers almost anything normal you care to name. Sometimes, you need to teach the software to prefer traditional over simplified, but you only need to do this once and for a minority of words (such as 週末/周末); don’t trust IBus blindly.

The upshot of all this is that I can now chat with friends in Taiwan at a pace of well above 60 characters per minute, which is probably at least four times quicker than before, 太棒了!

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