OS X Lion: New keyboard features make languages easier

Posted on by Mike Evans

Among the hidden gems of Lion is enhanced support for languages and keyboards. For the first time, we have the ability to view a virtual keyboard and to select the layout to suit foreign languages. This iOS-like feature is more significant than it might appear. I believe that it paves the way for a touch-screen version of Lion, including the possibility of a full-size virtual keyboard. This view is shared by MacDailyNews among others.

The new keyboard settings in System Preferences allow you to display the virtual keyboard which helps in typing, especially when the letters are in a different order to the familiar QWERTY, but more particularly in finding all the non-alpha characters which often change location on non-English layouts. If you have enough screen real estate, it’s quite fun to leave the Keyboard Viewer onscreen just to see the keys turn grey as you type. 

For as long as I remember it has been possible to choose your language of input and use the keyboard to produce text in many languages. But the Keyboard Viewer is a big step forward. When dealing with non-Latin character sets such as Arabic, Hebrew or Greek, the new viewer is virtually indispensable.

There is also a further enhancement to the standard keyboard that could avoid the need to change the keyboard when working in Latin-character languages. This is the ability to hold down any key and see accented alternatives, much as you can with the iOS virtual keyboard.

As an example, the three German Umlaut-modified vowels, ä, ö, ü, are available by holding down the a, o or u keys. With OS X, though, you cannot simply slide your finger across to the desired letter or character, so each option is given a number. Hit the appropriate number key to add the character to your text.

Working with languages

If you are new to the Mac and haven’t worked with languages, here are some tips.

To select one or more languages in addition to the main language open the Keyboard option in System Preferences. Click on Input Sources to find a complete list of languages installed on your Mac.

Tick the ones you want. Also click the box on Keyboard & Character Viewer at the top of the list of languages. There’s one more setting, Input Source Options. I usually choose the second option: “Allow a different one [keyboard] for each document”. You can experiment with these settings once you get used to the language changes.

Finally, click on Show Input menu in menu bar and a flag representing one of your chosen languages will appear on the top menu bar, usually right next to the date. Note that there is a longish list of English keyboards and you need to make sure you have the right one for your country. Some people in the UK find they are using the US layout when the keyboard selection should be British. You need to see the Union Flag on the menu bar. 

Once you have done this, click on the flag and you should see any alternative languages you have specified. You can change from one to the other easily by clicking on the appropriate flag icon. Click on Show Keyboard Viewer and  a small virtual keyboard will pop up onto the screen. This can be resized like a normal window and works in the same way as a virtual keyboard on iOS (except that, obviously, it isn’t a touch keyboard. You must use the mouse or trackpad if you are masochistic enough to want to use the on-screen keyboard as a means of text entry).

As you type on the physical keyboard, the virtual keys turn grey and it is quite exciting to watch the pattern of the words on the keyboard. Touch typists can have great fun watching the virtual keyboard. When you choose an alternative language the virtual keyboard changes over so you can see the keys mapped. 

Here’s a more in-depth view of these new features at MacWorld.

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