Keyboards: Monolingual or Multilingual?

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/02/05 00:01 -08:00, original URI:

The importance of having multilingual keyboards is often a controversial one.

I have often been amazed to watch people who feel intensely that it is important for their keyboard to support multiple languages, and compared them to others who also expressed an analagous intensity that it was improper for a keyboard purporting to support a particular language actually supporting many of them.

This is indeed a debate I have seen both internally and externally as well, especially for locations that either support many different languages or have a potential need to handle multiple languages (e.g. in large immigrant populations or neighboring countries).

The multilingual proponents often face an uphill battle for several reasons:

One reason is the simple fact that for the average user the keyboard will not be intuitive -- and the interest to overcome that and learn a keyboard is directly proportional to their need to support other languages. Otherwise, people will just consider it a bug that the possibility of creating typos is so greatly increased! How can you argue the importance of something

Another difficulty in the argument for multilingual keyboards is that sometimes they are not yet something the customers of that language are asking for. And indeede it may or may not be in the future, but Microsoft is put in a pretty weird position that we try our best to avoid when we are asked to take sides on such an issue.

I guess what is most important to recognize here is that this is argument where no one involved with it is actually wrong except when they claim to be speaking for everyone else.

(the fact that there is a disagreement proves that part, at least!)

The best we can often say is that the evidence is not all in yet.... :-)

This often becomes a scenario that is best served by MSKLC (Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator) until and unless the actual need is determined (since once we add a keyboard we are often stuck with it even if its proponents abandon the idea).


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# Rosyna on Sunday, February 05, 2006 4:46 AM:

I, personally, take the same side I take with left handed people. Learn to use the freakin thing the rest of the world uses and just GET OVER IT!

Also, no keyboard layout is intuitive. All layouts have to be learned. None of the characters are in any order for a novice user. And furthermore, having to switch between layouts is very annoying. I tried it while I was in japan, I had a japanese keyboard and a US english keyboard and switched between them frequently to test my personal response. While the japanese layout only varies slightly from the US one, it was very annoying to switch between them as muscle memory screwed everything up.

# Andy Noyon on Sunday, February 05, 2006 5:16 AM:

I spend sometime working in English, my native language, and some in French.  I'm used to the English keyboard layout and if I switch to the French keyboard layout I make a lot of mistakes where the layout is different (Q and A switched, M on the second line of characters etc.)  What I tend to do when working in French is to use key combinations to display accented characters, cedilas and that sort of thing.  It works really well for me.  It took a while to work out the combinations, but that's just part of learning a keyboard, right?

What really annoys me though is those programs that don't support these key combinations.  Word is great, but Outlook, Microsoft Access and probably loads of other programs just don't support that.  Is there some good technical reason why they don't?

# Dean Harding on Sunday, February 05, 2006 7:15 PM:

> I, personally, take the same side I take with left handed people.

That's a rather paganistic point of view. Lefties aren't witches or anything, they just prefer their left hand to their right. Why should they "adjust" to your way, when it's not *that* much trouble to buy left-handed scissors or whatever?

On another topic, what's the difference between a multi-lingual keyboard and a mono-lingual one anyway? My girlfriend is Korean and her computer has both English letters and Korean letters printed on it (other than that, it's a standard 104-key keyboard). Does that mean her keyboard is "multi-lingual"? When she comes over to my house, all she has to do is switch the keyboard layout to Korean and she can use my computer with no trouble (except now she has to touch-type, rather than looking at the keys - thank god for all the time she spends in chat rooms, otherwise touch typing would not be possible :p) but does that make *my* keyboard "multi-lingual"?

I guess some keyboard have different physical layouts, but mostly it's just different keys in different places, right?

# Michael S. Kaplan on Sunday, February 05, 2006 7:34 PM:

Hi Dean,

When I am talking about keyboard layouts here, I usually am referring to the software layouts, not the hardware. It is the one you can switch to get a new layout in another language.

I'll talk about some more of the issues in this particular debate in a post tomorrow....

# Rosyna on Sunday, February 05, 2006 10:23 PM:

Dean, because limiting yourself to just left handed items is silly. If that's all you can ever use than you can't use the majority of products out there because all you've learned to use is left handed junk.

"adjust" to my way? I'm left handed...

# Dean Harding on Monday, February 06, 2006 12:52 AM:

Rosyna: But it's a demonstratable fact that right-handed scissors (amoung other things) are less efficient when being used in your left hand. I mean, some things lefties complain about really *are* silly (like left-handed coffee mugs - come on, the only difference is where the picture is placed!) but some things really do need to be left- and right-handed specific. By the way, I'm a rightie, so maybe I'm just being a devil's advocate :)

Michael: gotcha. But then, couldn't you just say "all" layouts are "multi-lingual"? After all, you can just switch between them via Left Alt+Shift (or whatever). Perhaps I just don't understand what people are actually asking for in a "multi-lingual" keyboard then...

# Michael S. Kaplan on Monday, February 06, 2006 12:56 AM:

Dean -- When I talk about multilingual keyboards, I am referring to layouts that attempt to support multiple languages without requiring switching.

# Discovery (Boston) on Saturday, March 11, 2006 3:12 PM:

Michael, I think you should take a look at the multilingual product from a samll comapny in Boston at

The company seems to have a physical keyboard that accommodates mre than the traditional 26 alphabets QWERTY layout.

I think the argument about Mono or Multi maybe solved after all.


# Michael S. Kaplan on Saturday, March 11, 2006 4:41 PM:

Actually, the problem is still there -- because this implies that what people want is a multilingual keyboard (which we know in many cases they don't!).

The "technology" in question is not all that interesting -- anyone can build a layout. :-)

# Discovery (Boston) on Saturday, March 11, 2006 5:16 PM:

If I get the Boston company correctly, they actually have physical keyboards with 2 sets of shift keys. (I guess they must have used the 106 Euro keyboards or something like that)

They are claiming that you don't have to switch layout between languages. That seems interesting to me and appears to be a superior approach to what is currently out there.

# Michael S. Kaplan on Saturday, March 11, 2006 5:37 PM:

Yes, I understand what their claim is -- what I am saying is that it is possible today, and still requires the software layout side in order to work.

Multilingual keyboards themselves are what is often a problem, though. So it is not solved by this technique, any more than by building a multgilingual keyboard with MSKLC does.

The only unique thing that the company in Boston is providing is the hardware with the letters on it, something that is ALSO confusing to many people.....

# Michael S. Kaplan on Saturday, March 11, 2006 5:49 PM:

For more on the actual problems that most people have with switching, see and -- note that a multgilingual keyboard can address some of the issues, while losing some of the features (like language tagging), and still causing as much potential confusion....

So, as I said, the problem cannot be solved by just putting out a new layout.

# Discovery (Boston) on Saturday, March 11, 2006 6:30 PM:


Though I got your point on multilingual layout in general, I will concede that the issue is still open, but the approach used by the Boston company makes sense to me when it comes to group of languages using the same script (good example will be most African countries with many languages all Latin script based, but with extensive use of extended Latin characters.)

I think the Boston approach to multilingual keyboard and layout is adequate especially when you will not need to switch layout between languages.

I check the links above, but all these blogs are still addressing the headaches relating to switching layouts between languages.

I wonder if there is any independent write-up on the product by someone who has actually used the keyboard.

Oh by-the-way I think my MSKLC multilingual layout does the job, just the "AltGr" key location slows my typing down.  

# Michael S. Kaplan on Saturday, March 11, 2006 6:43 PM:

Do you work for this company or something? :-)

As I said, there is really not a whole lot of innovation here. Just look at the keyboard provided for the Canadian national standard to see one that ships in the box, and one that does not even require buying anything....

Of course there are general usability issues here too, as I have said

If you look at many of the other attempts to provide this support, there are always problems, and I have come to the conclusion that every attempt at a solution is a tradeoff -- solving some problems while creating/worsening others.

Any attempt at a solution is something good, but in their description there is nothing new here, really, so I am not going to do free advertising for an unproven product that does appear to have some misleading marketing copy attached to it.

It's a hard problem -- I would strongly advise that anyone who claims to have solved it is someone to be wary of....

# Discovery (Boston) on Saturday, March 11, 2006 7:13 PM:

Ok Michael, I get your point, you don't belief in multilingual keyboard period.

I speak and write in over four different languages, and I am still searching for the perfect solution to my interpreting projects.

I just happen to have an exact opposite of your opinion. I think the future of keyboards is a single multilingual layout, not switching between languages. That solution is somewhere out there :-)

# Michael S. Kaplan on Saturday, March 11, 2006 8:06 PM:

Well, I would not go to that extreme, either -- one could argue that if there is anything I am against, it is the extreme positions/agendas held by many of the promoters of various multilingual keyboards to which I have been exposed....

referenced by

2006/04/13 Getting all you can out of a keyboard layout, Part #9b

2006/03/15 Multilingual keyboards and Microsoft Word

2006/02/06 In my estimation, most keyboard layouts suck

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