Typing accents  ALT codes  Choosing a keyboard

Typing accents using a different keyboard

If you need to type French or a language with accents on a regular basis, then the most efficient option is almost certainly to use a non-English keyboard. This much is probably obvious. What's less obvious, is that:

A French keyboard isn't necessarily the best option for typing French!

We'll look below at the process of actually installing a new keyboard. But first, let's look at some of the choices.

Choosing a keyboard

Firstly, let's deal with what might at first seem the obvious choice: a French keyboard. The advantage of getting used to a French keyboard is that if you have to work on-site at other places that use a French keyboard, you won't struggle to get your fingers round it. The disadvantage of the French keyboard layout is that it's basically unlike any other keyboard layout in the entire universe. It has at least the following somewhat quirky features:

  • The number keys do not by default function as number keys but are instead used for various accented and other characters;
  • The layout of the letter keys (the so-called AZERTY layout) has more differences with the US/UK layout than various other layouts using the Roman alphabet1.

Unless you type only in English and French, and compatibility with other people using French keyboards is an advantage to you, then I suggest steering well clear of the French keyboard layout. As we'll see below, keyboards designed for other languages actually handle French well and don't suffer the above quirks.

Spanish keyboards

If you work in Spanish as well as French, then this layout is suitable for both languages:

  • It is a QWERTY keyboard, so those used to a US/UK layout won't struggle with the placement of the letters;
  • Accents are always typed by pressing an 'accent' key (sometimes called a dead letter followed by the vowel– this means that they always require two keystrokes, but at least it's consistent;
  • Unlike some other layouts, punctuation is still easy to type (in some layouts, the accent keys double as punctuation, so you have to press the key twice to get punctuation);
  • It has keys for the ñ (and upside down question and exclamation marks) and ç characters (the French layout lacks the former, so would generally be unsuitable for typing Spanish).

A slight disadvantage is that the Spanish layout does not contain the French quotation marks (though nor does the French!). Some word processors can be configured to convert a sequence of two greater-than or less-than signs into the appropriate French quote. But in any case, English-style quotation marks appear to be increasingly used in French in many contexts.

Portuguese keyboards

The Portuguese layout, similar to the Spanish, is also a good contender.

  • Since Portuguese also uses ç, this has its own key;
  • Accents are typed by pressing a "dead" key followed by the vowel, as with the Spanish layout;
  • The Portuguese layout has a key for the French-style quotation marks!
  • It may be irritating for programmers, as curly and square brackets are accessed via the right ALT key.

US International layout

This is not a keyboard as such, but a way of configuring an existing US keyboard (see below). In this configuration, the punctuation keys that resemble accents actually function as accents when followed by a vowel key. To type the corresponding punctuation, you follow the punctuation key with the space bar. This layout has the advantage that several other characters, including the French quotation marks, are also available using the right-hand ALT key.

You can buy US International keyboard stickers to place over an existing US keyboard.

Configuring the keyboard

You generally have to tell Windows what keyboard layout you are using. On the next page we discuss how to configure the keyboard layout in Windows.

Note that you generally don't have to install the software that comes with the keyboard if you just want to use it as a "basic" keyboard. The extra software is usually for "special" features of the keyboard such as programmable keys, media functions etc. Whether you want to install 50MB of software just so you can play Beethoven's fifth at the touch of a button is a matter of personal preference...

Click here to go to the next page: configuring the keyboard layout in Windows.

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