Chinese has two basic methods of recognizing it’s Asian characters: Phonetic and Strokes. Dictionaries could use one system or the other. If you have the sounds of every character memorized, phonetic may be easier for you. However, if you want to type a character by looking at its appearance—or if you want to type Chinese with a faster typing method—you may want to learn about character components.
There is a wide variety of books that show the evolution of characters, explaining their etymology, and showing different shapes and layouts characters can make. Just like English words have different roots and prefixes and suffixes, so do Chinese and Japanese characters have different sections that can be abbreviated or used interchangeably. Once you learn the basic components of the characters, writing, reading, and typing characters is easier.
Concerning phonetics, there are two main phonetic systems. The first, formally called “bopomofo” (Zhuyin) uses something much like the Hiragana of Japanese. They are phonetic characters that make exact sounds used to pronounce words. This phonetic system has been converted into Roman (not ‘English’ mind you) letters in several different systems. Some older ones, for example, spell the “sh” sound “hs” which makes for some very interesting spellings. The more widely known phonetic system today was developed in Communist China, known often as Pinyin.
The danger of Pinyin to English speakers is that anyone could assume it is English when it is anything but. In my travels, I have met a number of English speakers who learned Chinese in American universities using, not Pinyin, but the older bopomofo characters, still used in Taiwan. The claim is that the Asian phonetic characters make it easier to learn new sounds as a language student. Having also studied Greek, I agree with this.
However, I think it is best for any Chinese student to know both the Romanized Pinyin and the traditional bopomofo alphabets and their equivalents. By learning them together it may be easier than learning either one all by itself. Also, when you talk to any Chinese speaker, regardless of where they grew up, you will be able to discuss phonetics with ease.
Here are two websites that explain the bopomofo and the Pinyin equivalents well.
Concerning character input (IME) or “typing” methods, there is a big difference between phonetic and stroke-based input. Any single Chinese character could be one of 30 characters with the same sound. So, if you use the phonetic input method, you’ll often be typing about three letters to make the sound, then a number to choose from the long list of options. This is slow and awkward, though many young people may do this. The stroke-based inputs (of which there are a number) reduce those options. They group character components (like root words and suffixes in English) into families and apply them to letters on the keyboard. This reduces the possible combinations per character so, after bout two to six letters, you complete a character and can type Chinese much faster.
But there is another advantage to learning the stroke-based input. It helps you break the characters down into smaller components so you can remember them easier, which improves writing and reading ability. If you want to know how to write Asian characters, it’s best to first start painting the component strokes because they originated in their modern form with painted calligraphy, after moving from mud and stylus long ago. Try some painting, then the stroke-input method of your choice while learning to write the characters. But that gets into another topic which you can find many books about.
Here is a link to download the bopomofo/Zhuyin 注音符號 phonetic input tool on the language bar for Windows:
Here is a link to download a common stroke-based input tool on the language bar for Windows, commonly known as Cangjie or ChaJie 倉頡 (traditional); 仓颉 (simplified):
Excellent little instant lookup tool for Cangjie’s benefits and a learning guide book:
Websites about Cangjie’s benefits and tutorials:
Wiki on overview of Chinese inputs:
If you want a font that displays the bopomofo characters embedded with the Chinese letters, you want what is called a “ruby font”. You can also get ruby fonts for Japanese, displaying Hiragana (phonetic characters). Here is a link to more information about Chinese ruby fonts. It’s a great learning tool. Convert the Chinese text to this font and you’ll see how to pronounce the characters… at least that’s the idea.