During my "Language, Script, and Society in China" class on this past Thursday (10/15/15), I asked the students the following questions:
1. What is your primary method for inputting Chinese characters?
2. What percentage of the time do you use your primary method for inputting Chinese characters?
3. What is your secondary method for inputting Chinese characters?
4. What percentage of the time do you use your secondary method for inputting Chinese characters?
The reason I asked for primary and secondary methods is because occasionally one will have to deal with a rare character whose shape, meaning, and / or sound one is not familiar with, so one may have to resort to a different method to enter it into the text one is typing.
Before revealing the results of the survey, I need to say something about the composition of the class. There were around 20 students in attendance that day. All of them are familiar with Chinese characters. One student is studying Korean, so she only knows a few characters and did not participate in the survey. About half the students in the class are M.A. and Ph.D. candidates from the PRC, so they are fully literate in Chinese. All of the other students, who are from America or other countries, are advanced in the study of Chinese, so they regularly write Chinese for various purposes.
The results pointed overwhelmingly in one direction: every single student in the class uses pinyin romanization as their primary inputting method, and nearly all of them said that they do so between 95% and 100% of the time. Many of the students didn't even mention a secondary inputting method. Of those who did mention a secondary inputting method, the only one they listed was handwriting on the touch screen / pad of their iPhone, iPad, android, etc. or with a mouse on their computer. No one mentioned such shape-based systems as Cangjie and Wubi, not even as a secondary method for inputting.
No, beg your pardon; one other very different secondary method for inputting rare characters whose pronunciation and / or meaning are unknown was noted, viz., cutting and pasting from a pre-existing document or data base. One student said that he uses this method, and I have met other individuals who do so when confronting characters with which they are unfamiliar (I myself do it from time to time).
This overwhelming, virtually unanimous, preference for pinyin inputting is an interesting, but to me not at all surprising, development. Five years ago, when I did a similar survey in the same course, a few students did mention Cangjie and comparable methods, and one mentioned Wubi for auxiliary purposes. I have always said that — if students were not forced to learn Wubi [and some high schools did require it] — no one except professional, full-tme typists would struggle to master it. See Rebecca Shuang Fu's revealing paper on this subject in Sino-Platonic Papers 224.
With every passing year of people texting on cell phones and composing on computers via pinyin, and with the simultaneous improvement of automatic conversion of running pinyin text to Chinese characters (it is astonishing how good these systems have become), the percentage of those who use romanization for character inputting approaches one hundred percent.
The following are some earlier Language Log posts that are relevant to today's topic:
"Stroke order inputting" (10/30/11)
"Cantonese input methods" (1/20/15)
"Google Translate Chinese inputting" (1/27/13)
"Creeping Romanization in Chinese" (8/30/12)
"Chinese Typewriter" (6/30/09)
"Chinese typewriter, part 2" (4/17/11)
"Zhou Youguang, Father of Pinyin" (1/14/14)
"Zhou Youguang, 109 and going strong " (1/13/15)
My interest in the computerization of Chinese characters goes back to a conference I held at Penn in 1990, and beyond that to the 80s and 70s, when the very idea of inputting characters in computers was daunting. For a summary of the early history of characters in computers, see Victor H. Mair and Yongquan Liu, eds., Characters and Computers (Amsterdam, Oxford, Washington, Tokyo: IOS, 1991), which is based on the 1990 Penn conference. From the very beginning, I have always maintained that the only efficient, user-friendly system for inputting Chinese characters for the bulk of the population would be phonetic (especially alphabetical). It is gratifying, after witnessing the invention of hundreds, if not thousands, of inputting methods for Chinese characters, to see that pinyin is indeed turning out to be the choice of the vast majority of those who enter texts into electronic devices such as cell phones and computers.