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Foreign accents on an English keyboard, what a nightmare! back


I started learning French last year, and have started to learn Spanish in the last month or so. It opens up a whole new horizon! Apart from the obvious advantages of being able to communicate more effectively with people from other countries, I also discovered a few interesting things once I started understanding new languages:

  • It does not matter how impartial English speaking news channels claim to be, there are certain angles which simply do not get reported by them. These angles do get covered by channels in other languages, sometimes with much more granularity. For example, once I heard once on a French channel that in England, the number of Catholics actually exceeded that of protestants for the first time. Interestingly, this was not even mentioned by the BBC. Is this something they do not think is newsworthy ? I have certainly seen more worthless news covered!
  • You can pick up certain books on fascinating topics in a foreign language which have not been translated into English. For example, I recently wanted to read this book, which does not seem to be available in English.

One way of improving my language skills is to converse with or write to native speakers around the world, and the internet makes it very easy to do this, at almost no cost. The one thing, however, that always frustrates me is the ability to input foreign accents and characters into various software such as word processors, or email clients etc. If you search for these in Google or any other search engines, you get a whole myriad of different suggestions, recommendations, most of which only are rather cumbersome to implement. For example, you can install a language tool bar, which allows you to switch between different installed keyboards. The problem with this approach is obviously it is a nightmare to remember where the keys are on an English keyboard. You would have to print out images of all these keyboards in order to visualise them.

How about using the real keyboards ? Well, this helps a bit. I actually ran across the English Channel to Calais to grab a French keyboard. Granted it did not cost much, and works rather well. It is still a pain to carry these extra hardware around, not to mention the impracticality of it when I started on Spanish.

Another approach is to run the Character Map tool, look up the character you want to type, in the font you want, them copy it to the clipboard and then paste it to the software you are typing into. This is rather awkward and slow too.

Then there is the magical AltGr key. On most keyboards, this is specifically the Alt key on the right side of the space bar. This key can be used in combination which another key to access the graphical characters in the character set. You can also use it in a sequence of key strokes to decorate standard characters with accents. For example, in order to type é, you will first hold down the AltGr key, then hit the ; key (which I will denote from now on as AltGr+;), which will produce nothing on the screen. If you then type e, magically, the é will appear. This technique is marginally better, as once you know where the ' accent is, you can combine it with other vowels to produce other accented characters. For example, for á, you would type AltGr+;, then a. The only disadvantage of this method is obviously you will have to remember that AltGr+; produces ', which is not exactly intuitive.

I finally settled for the last input method, which makes use of the COMPOSE key. This key is programmable and can be configured to be bound to various different buttons such as RIGHT CONTROL, or right ALT key etc. as shown in the screenshot below (if you are lucky enough to have a Sun keyboard, there is already a key labeled "COMPOSE" on it).

Screenshot for keyboard reference

Once you have the COMPOSE key, you can simply type in the accented accents in a much more intuitive way. The COMPOSE key allows you to preset the accent, which is visually the closest key to the accent you want to use, then type the key itself. This means you will have to make at least two keystrokes in order to achieve the final accented character. For example, to get é, you will have to type COMPOSE+', then e. Two things to note here when using this technique:

  1. the accent is literally what you'd have to type in combination with the COMPOSE key. This means that if you want to, say, use the ^ accent, you will have to hold down both the COMPOSE and SHIFT key while hitting 6, which is where the ^ is. So, to get ê, the key sequence is COMPOSE+SHIFT+6, then e.
  2. I mentioned the word visually above. This means you have to use your imagination a bit, like < for ˇ (COMPOSE+< then e produces ě)
Other combinations are pretty intuitive also, as long as you keep the word visually in mind. For example, COMPOSE+o then e produces œ. Some other useful sequences are listed below. I have condensed it to allow coverage for the more popular western European languages and to demonstrate the visual aspect of the COMPOSE key.

Key sequence Character Typical language
COMPOSE+,+c ç French
COMPOSE+'+e é French
COMPOSE+`+e è French
COMPOSE+^+e ê French
COMPOSE+o+e œ French
COMPOSE+<+< « French
COMPOSE+>+> » French
COMPOSE+~+n ñ Spanish
CCOMPOSE+!+! ¡ Spanish
COMPOSE+?+? ¿ Spanish
COMPOSE+<+c č Czech
COMPOSE+<+e ě Czech
COMPOSE+"+u ü German
COMPOSE+s+s ß German
COMPOSE+*+a å Swedish
COMPOSE+/+o ø Swedish
COMPOSE+=+e Europe
COMPOSE+=+y ¥ Japanese
COMPOSE+/+c ¢ International
COMPOSE+o+c © International
COMPOSE+++- ± International
COMPOSE+(+R ® International

You can find a comprehensive list of COMPOSE key sequences for almost anything found in ISO-8559-1 defined character set here, although I find it rather intimidating, as most of the time I only need the characters tabulated above.

Note that the above example is Ubuntu specific, as this is the bit of information I found most difficult to obtain. There are various Ubuntu forums which recommend different techniques, but if you are not careful, they can take you around in circles. On Windows, things are a bit more uniform, and the same principal still applies. You can configure the COMPOSE key (which on my keyboard is conveniently the LEFT CONTROL key). To reinforce my first point about opening up your horizon when you know another language, I managed to pick up the information about the COMPOSE key above in the most coherent manner on a French article. This is probably why you can never find it searching in English. Also, only a non-English speaker using an English keyboard would ever have to tackle this issue in earnest, as it then becomes a matter of survival!


 by by David at 16 Dec 2008 23:06:44
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