A niche use case for on-screen keyboards

When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, one of its most prominent and most controversial features was the on-screen keyboard. In as world dominated by devices with physical keyboards, it was seen as a joke, something that could never work. We know better by now, of course, but while I still prefer the physical feel and clicks of a real keyboard, a recent new endeavour of mine has made me appreciate the on-screen keyboard in a whole new way.

After the launch of the original iPhone, Steve Jobs defended the choice of going for a virtual, on-screen keyboard instead of a physical one as such:

The iPhone’s keyboard lets us use far more sophisticated software to improve accuracy, customize the keyboard for specific applications, and of course remove the keyboard when it’s not needed, freeing iPhone’s entire large screen for reading email, browsing the Web, looking at maps, enjoying photos and movies, and doing things we haven’t yet invented. We think the iPhone’s keyboard is one of its greatest assets and competitive advantages.

Keep the emphasis in mind as I explain what I’m on about.

Learning Foreign

While I ‘do OSNews’ by night as a hobby, my day is spent doing something else entirely. I’m a translator, and not entirely unsurprisingly, language fascinates me. Living in a small country like the The Netherlands with a language no sane non-native speaker should ever have to learn, learning to speak various variants of Foreign is a core part of our high school education. English, French, and German are all standard in our high schools, and since I went to Latin/Greek school, I also learned Latin and Greek.

As much as I like the fact that I can speak Dutch, English and German (my French is extremely rusty and basic, and my Latin and Greek have been rotting by the wayside for about a decade now), I’ve always wanted to learn something non-Germanic and non-Romanic – more generally speaking, something non-Indo-European. Aside from it just being fun and cool (if you’re into that sort of thing, obviously), language is a culture’s programming language, and through it, you gain a unique perspective on a different culture.

If you exclude all Indo-European languages, you basically limit yourself greatly – this massive language family includes all European (Germanic, Slavic, Romanic) languages, but also things like Hindi and Urdu. Afroasiatic languages (e.g. Arabic) don’t really speak to me, so you eventually end up looking at Sino-Tibetan languages (e.g. Chinese) or Japanese (I’m not going into what I learned is apparently a controversial debate about Japanese’s language family).

For some reason, though, neither Chinese nor Japanese appealed to me – most importantly, both languages’ writing systems look far too daunting to me to attempt to learn either of them in my free time. On top of that, both Chinese and Japanese are already quite popular among non-native speakers as it is, for obvious reasons (China’s importance on the world stage, and Japan’s cultural appeal, among others).

In between all this, I completely failed to look at one other language in the region.

This changed when only a few months ago, the latest internet craze arose from the depths of Reddit. You all know what I’m talking about, and don’t try to claim that a) you’ve never seen it, or b) that you don’t – secretly – like it. PSY’s Gangnam Style is a Korean pop song that exploded all over the web and the world these past months, and, as I usually do whenever I come across a song that I like in a foreign language, I took a gander at Wikipedia’s pages on the Korean language.

And what a surprise that was. Considering South Korea’s geographical location, I had always assumed Korean had very close ties to both Chinese and Japanese, and thus, had a similarly complicated and daunting writing system. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, though.

The Korean alphabet, named Hangul, is quite possibly the most logical, well-structured and simplest alphabet I’ve ever seen. Written Korean looks incredibly complicated at first glance, but in reality, it’s quite straightforward. I won’t go into too much detail here (I’ve already gone on long enough here, and my knowledge on the subject is still far too limited), but consider my name written in Korean (at least, I think I’m supposed to write it this way, don’t pin me on it):


It might appear that my four-lettered name is written with a single character, but that’s not what’s happening here. Hangul consists of 24 letters, but unlike letters in a Latin alphabet, they are not written sequentially. Instead, letters are grouped into blocks, corresponding to a syllable. Look at my name again, and you’ll see it actually consists of three individual letters – roughly the equivalent of t, o, and m:

ㅌ ㅗ ㅁ

Hangul is highly structured and – even though I can’t really explain it – it somehow makes a lot of sense. It’s very easy to pick up, and within less than an hour I was writing the names of friends and family members in Korean as best I could (I had to cheat here and there due to some Dutch sounds not having a Hangul equivalent). Within less than a day I was able to write names in Korean without peeking at my cheat sheet (again I wish to reiterate that my writing might be off, but you have to start somewhere).

In case you’re wondering: Hangul makes so much sense because it didn’t grow organically like the Latin alphabet. It was created in 1443 under and partially by Sejong the Great, then-king of Korea. It’s remained largely the same since then, and has retained its clearly practical nature to this very day. Combine this with the abundance of Korean pop songs with lyrics available online in Korean, English, and Romanised, and all the ingredients are there to make learning Hangul a piece of cake.

The value of the on-screen keyboard

And thus we come back to the introduction of this article: the value of on-screen keyboards. I have no idea how to get my hands on a real Korean keyboard, so I quickly realised that both my Galaxy SII and my Nexus 7 could be outfitted with Google’s official Korean IME. I’m assuming iOS has a similar keyboard as well.

With it, I was able to type in beautifully rendered Hangul within minutes, avoiding what would have been my own extremely messy and unreadable handwritten Hangul. Since the Korean IME prevents you from making syllabic blocks that are not possible, it almost functions like a built-in teaching tool. In the first few minutes, this was incredibly valuable – forcing you to ask questions like why can’t I combine these two letters?

It looks like this:

It’s got a Latin alphabet built right in:

Which, coincidentally, is a lot more pleasant to type on than the regular Latin Android keyboard, because its keys are larger. Compare to the regular Latin keyboard below:

So, as someone interested in languages and who has the desire to learn Korean (the grammar’s going to suck), I want to thank Steve Jobs and Apple for popularising the on-screen keyboard in the way iOS has done. All this might be a niche use case, but it’s a use case nonetheless. It has removed a pretty large barrier for learning languages in non-Latin scripts, and that’s just awesome.


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