Tech Tip: Insert Special Characters from Foreign Languages

Foreign Languages

If you’re trying to learn a foreign language at all, it’s fairly obvious that many other languages use characters that are similar to ours, but include accents, umlauts, and other symbols. While it’s not a big deal if you’re trying to read or speak the language, what if you have to write the language? You’ll notice those characters aren’t part of the normal US English keyboard. So how do you get those special characters on paper?

If you’re trying to type out in a language that use the Latin alphabet (like most North and South American, European and African countries use, according to Wikipedia) the process is fairly easy if you’re using Microsoft Word or Outlook as they have built-in short cuts for this:

  • Ctrl+’ adds an acute accent to the character typed next (à)
  • Ctrl+’ when followed by d or D, creates the old English character “eth” (ð)
  • Ctrl+` adds a grave accent to the character typed next (á)
  • Ctrl+^ adds a circumflex to the character typed next (â)
  • Ctrl+~ adds a tilde to the character typed next (ã)
  • Ctrl+: adds a dieresis or umlaut to the character typed next (ä)
  • Ctrl+@ adds a degree symbol above the letters a and A (like å); used primarily in Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish
  • Ctrl+& creates combination or Germanic characters based on the character typed next (æ for example)
  • Ctrl+, adds a cedilla to the character typed next (ç for example)
  • Ctrl+/ adds a slash through the letters o and O; used primarily in Danish and Norwegian (ø)
  • Alt+Ctrl+? creates an upside-down question mark (¿)
  • Alt+Ctrl+! creates an upside-down exclamation mark (¡)

Note on these shortcuts: You may have to push the “shift” key in addition on many of these shortcuts, depending on how your keyboard is laid out, just like you would to get to that character in the first place on that particular key.

Another other option, if you’re not using either of those programs, is to use what are called “alt codes.” Basically, alt codes are a way to input characters and symbols by inputting the code for that symbol. They’ll work in pretty much any Windows program, you just need to find the proper alt code to use for the symbol you want, hold down the “alt” key and type the code in using the number pad on your keyboard (it generally doesn’t work if you use the row of numbers on your keyboard). You can find a nice list of alt-codes and their corresponding characters at this Penn State reference, or this printable sheet.

The last option, if you’re only occasionally using special characters, is to use Windows’ built-in Character Map program to copy and paste the characters you need. You can open the Character Map by going to the windows start menu and searching for “Character Map” (it will usually show up after you start typing “Char”). When you open up that program, it gives you a list of all the available characters and symbols for all the fonts on your system (it typically defaults the “Arial” font). Double-click on the character you’re needing, hit the “Copy” button, open the program you’re working in, and paste the character in.

If you’re not typing in a language that is using Latin alphabet (like many Asian languages), then that’s a whole other ball game and would require tools like Pinyin (for Chinese), the adding or changing of input languages and a foreign language keyboards or overlays to make your life easier.

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