Learning to Type in French (or at least how to get those accents)

Parlez-Vous Français?

Tell me I'm the only one that's done this: You have to write a paper for French class. As you type, you become painfully aware of your keyboard's country of origin. There's no key for ç, í or ê on a US standard keyboard (by far the most common keyboard in Canada). So what do I do? Type it up, print it out, then read it over and mark in all the accents and cidella with a black ball point. Don't laugh, you would have done the same 15 years ago.

Luckily, things have changed. Software companies recognize the need to support languages besides English across numerous applications. The solution in general can be quite complex. I'm going to focus here on the dilemma that I've been through with just Canadian French and English, but parts of this will apply to Spanish and even Arabic language users.

If you're an occasional French typist in Canada, you can get by with a standard keyboard (obviously designed with English in mind). Just tell Windows that you need to add another input language and keyboard layout. First, you'll need to go to the Control Panel. Click the Start button, then “Settings,” then “Control Panel.” In the Windows XP Control Panel, there's an item called "Date, Time, and Regional Options." Open it and you'll have an option titled "Add other languages." Double-click that option and you'll get a dialog titled "Regional and Language Options." (shown below)

We're getting close now. The dialog has a button labelled "Details..." Click that button and you'll get another dialog box, this one titled "Text Services and Input Languages."

This dialog is where Windows XP lets us choose the language that we use when we type. Or, in my case, the language I'm trying to use...

As you might have guessed, the language used for typing is called an "Input Language." The other important thing to know is that we're not really changing the keyboard, just what Windows calls the "Keyboard Layout." So back to the dialog that we're all staring at. The bottom part of the dialog box contains a list of input languages and the keyboard layouts that are used with them. In the picture above, I've only got one language and one keyboard layout.

Click "Add..." and choose French (Canadian) from the list of languages. Next add the keyboard layout using the add button below the lower list. You can choose either the Canadian Multilingual layout or the US International layout. I recommend the US International layout, at least until I can find a reference that describes the Canadian Multilingual layout.

After you select these options, click OK, and you'll be back at the "Text Services and Input Languages." dialog box, but now it will show your new choice for French, similar to this:

Finally check the box that says "show the language bar." Click “Apply,” then there's only one thing left to do. Click the “Language Bar...” button and you'll get this dialog:

The language bar isn't a place to pick up a foreign date (ha!), it's another toolbar that shows up at the bottom of the screen with the taskbar and the quick launch toolbar. The important thing is that when you're typing, the language bar tells you if you're using English or French. Check off the same options as I have above.

Click OK, and you'll be back at the "Text Services and Input Languages." Click OK on that one and you're back to "Regional and Language Options." Click OK on that one and you're finally done. Now you have to actually come up with something to type in French. No lyrics from “Moulin Rouge,” please.

Putting It All To Work

The list below shows how to get accented characters in the US International layout.

Press and release this

Then press this

To type this accented letter


C, c, e, y, u, i, o, a

Ç, ç, é, ý, ú, í, ó, á



e, u, i, o, a

ë, ü, ï, ö, ä


accent grave (left of 1)

e, u, i, o

è, ù, ì, ò


tilde (shift + accent grave)

o, n

õ, ñ


carat (shift+6)

e, u, i, o, a

ê, û, î, ô, â

(Table adapted from Microsoft support web site http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=kb;en-us;306560 )

If you type the apostrophe with the intent of getting just an apostrophe, you won't see anything until you type another letter, a space or a backspace. The easiest way to get an apostrophe is to type the apostrophe then a space. The apostrophe key is called a “dead key.” The same goes for quote, accent grave, tilde and carat.

Switching languages

Now instead of thinking about typing in a special letter, think about which language your using. When you're going to type in French, switch to the French input language by pressing the left alt and shift keys (that is, hold alt down, then press and release shift). To switch back to English, do the same. You'll see a little indicator at the bottom of the screen on the Language bar (near the clock usually) that shows "EN" when you're using English and "FR" when you're using French.

What about email?

Suppose you're typing up your homework and you want to send an email to your French uncle to ask for some pointers. When you switch from your word processor to the email program, look at the language indicator before you start typing; each application remembers what language you last used. Just press the left alt & shift again until you see the language you want.

À bientôt