Android support for East Asian languages

Until a few years ago, if you wanted to send a message in an East Asian language on your mobile phone, you usually had no choice but to buy a mobile phone from the country you're communicating with. At that time, only a limited number of phones were capable of handling Unicode and displaying East Asian character sets. Thankfully, with the advent of smart phones, and especially Google's open source Android operating system, this has changed, and mobile phones have become much more international. Today it is possible to have one mobile phone and install support for a whole set of different languages.px.gif

Note: Things move fast in the smartphone world, so the information provided here is largely outdated. Although Google's IMEs are still some of the best around, they are becoming more resource-consuming and data-hungry with each update. By now there is an open source repository for Android apps called F-Droid, which comes as a replacement for the Google Play store and offers a number of open source input methods for East Asian languages you may want to consider instead.

Installing input methods for Chinese, Japanese or Korean

First, let's have a look at the Input Methods (or IMEs) available for Android. A limited number of Android phones come with input methods for Asian languages preinstalled. But if that's not the case, head over to the Android Market and install the input methods from there.

There is also an input method called MultiLing which tries to combine a number of different IMEs into one single app and interface. Besides the “keyboard” app itself, you will need to install plugins for each language you want to use. Set-up is relatively easy, the app does not require network access and has a passable handwriting plugin, so you can enter Chinese, Japanese or Korean characters by writing them on your screen.

Unfortunately, most of the IMEs listed here require network access. In theory, access to “the cloud” can improve accuracy. In practice, you never know what kind of data these apps send back home, the IMEs available are mostly closed source. Do not use them to input sensitive data, such as passwords, and try to stick with apps that require very few permissions. There is simply no valid reason for an IME to demand access to your phone's location data, for example (I am looking your way, Baidu). So make sure you do some research on apps before installing them. As a rule of thumb, applications with more than 100,000-500,000 installs, that have been around for a while and have decent reviews should be okay (no guarantees though).

Activating and using the Input Method

After installing the input method of your choice, go to Home –> Settings –> Language & Keyboard and activate it (i.e. touch the input method until the little check mark lights up green). After that, open any application or window where you want to enter Chinese, Japanese or Korean text. Press and hold the input box where you want to type until a small dialogue box comes up that gives you an option to change the input method. Select your desired input method and type away!

You can find more information on the details of installing and setting up Chinese input methods on Pinyin Joe's homepage, here and here. Joe's page is, by the way, an excellent resource for all things related to Chinese language input on computers in general, and has helped me countless times.

Changing your system language to Chinese, Japanese or Korean

If you want to take it one step further, you can convert your whole phone to another language. Again, this may not be possible on all phones, as most vendors remove this option or only allow you to choose from a very limited number of languages. Your first stop is Menu –> Settings –> Language & Keyboard –> Select Locale. If you're lucky, you can select your desired language right there. If not, you'll have to take a detour.

Besides the language option in your Android settings, there should be an app called “Custom Locale” in your home menu (if not, open the app via Menu –> Custom Locale, scroll down until you find the desired locale (zh_CN for simplified Chinese, ja_JP for Japanese, ko_KR for Korean), press and hold the entry until a dialogue box comes up. Click “Apply”, then reboot to switch Android to Chinese or Korean, for example. If you don’t have “Custom Locale” on your phone, you can get it from a virtual android device. There are also a few apps on the Android Market that do the same thing, although I haven’t tested any of these.

This is basically everything you need to know to fully convert your phone to Chinese, Japanese, Korean or any other language. Enjoy!