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Learning CW, it just doesnt stick!

Discussion in 'Straight Keys - CW Enthusiasts' started by SA7CNG, May 21, 2020.

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  1. G4WKW

    G4WKW Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    Hi Alexander :)

    First of all, I emphasize with you in your problems learning the code. When I first learned it in 1983 after obtaining my 'B' license, I attempted to do so in a really bad way, starting off at a very low character speed, where I was hearing the character, turning that into dits and dahs, then converting that to a letter. Yes, it is possible to do that up to a certain speed, but then you do not have time, so you cannot progress. For me, I got to 10 WPM then got totally stuck for over a month, practicing for quite a long time every day. It was only when I stopped trying to convert what I heard into dits and dahs but instead tried to hear it as a sound for a letter which I could go to directly, that my speed suddenly shot up and I found I could copy at 15 WPM.

    To obtain my 'A' license, I had to be able to send and receive morse at 12 WPM, so I did manage to do that (sending with a straight key, which was the only one I had). My receive practice was mainly listening to cassette tapes of people keying at different speeds, rather than using a Morse Code program on a computer.

    After using CW for a little while after obtaining my full license, including my first contact with a Russian who was extremely patient with my slow, hesitant code, full of errors, I stopped using CW for many years and became inactive on the radio too. Well, I renewed my amateur license in 2016 as I was coming up for retirement and thought it would be good to get back on the radio. I also knew that I would likely be very limited in what I could do on the radio from home, probably not being able to use any outside aerials, so I thought I would aim to work QRP portable instead, so being able to use CW properly would be a great advantage.

    Well, when relearning this time, I did quite a lot of research before starting and decided to learn using the Koch method, like yourself. I used lots of different programs, including the G4FON one and JustLearnMorse. Certainly, they can be very good to learn the characters initially, but they can be very frustrating too. Here are some initial tips from me, having gone through the most difficult part:

    1) There are different things to learn, being able to copy code received (ideally to your head, rather than written down or typed) and being able to send code using a key. In some ways, these are at first entirely different and there are different key points regarding each of them:

    a) When learning to receive code, I think that it is essential not to think at all about dahs and dits at all, but just concentrate on the sound of the complete character. For that reason, I now actually think that it is a mistake to try and learn Morse Code at even 15 WPM, as it is still far too tempting to listen to dahs and dits rather than the character as a whole. I recommend using at least 20 WPM, or preferably 25 WPM for a character speed. At that speed, when you hear an H sent, you can't practically count the number of dits to know that four were sent, but rather you know from the sound that it is a H, rather than an S or a 5, because you have heard them often enough to know the difference. As others have said, you can use Farnsworth timing (or other methods) to give a long gap between each character, which you can gradually reduce as you get better at accurately recognizing each character.

    b) When learning to send, then of course you DO have to know what dahs and/or dits are used to form the character. I would advise not trying to send too early. There are several reasons for that, but here are a couple. If you first start to send using a straight key, you could very easily be sending incorrect characters without realizing, because your do not sufficiently know what they *should* sound like; this can cause you problems learning to receive the characters properly too. If you start by using a dual paddle key and keyer, then you need to learn to make the right keystrokes with your finger and thumb, having decided whether you are going to do dits with your finger or with your thumb, with your right hand or left; you also need to understand the different key modes that are possible, including Ultimatic, Single-paddle emulation, Iambic 'A' and Iambic 'B'. Yes, it can get complex, but if you are certain that you know what a character should sound like, then learning to send is an awful lot easier.

    2) If you have an Android phone, I highly recommend that you try an App called "Morse Machine for Ham Radio" by Andrea Salvatore (it has an MM in a circle for its icon). Why do I like it so much? It offers the ability to start with two letters and then add others, one more at a time, but it allows you a different order to do so and you can choose between LCWO, Koch, Original MM, ETANIM, Oscar 17HP, CW Academy, and Diefenbach (I think the "Original MM" method is better than Koch. You can set the Speed (and I recommend 25 WPM) and Frequency (or pitch of the Tone), which is more a personal choice. When you start it the display shows the relevant characters, each with a circle round them, when you hear the sound then the program waits for you to select the character, if you get it right, then it sends the next character sound, if you get it wrong then it beeps, if you are slow in deciding, it just sends it again, and again, until you do make a choice. Every time you you get a character correct, the circle line gets shorter, so after a period of time using the program, you can easily see which characters you are having problems with. You may find that you have a lot more success with it than some of the other programs that just keep sending you characters, regardless of whether or not you have got them right or not.

    3) I read someone's comment that they did not regard Morse Code as a language, which I beg to differ with. My reason for saying that is once you have reached a certain level of accurately recognizing characters in your head, then it is much better to practice listening to words, widely spaced apart. If you think about when you are reading, you do not read each letter individually, but very quickly scan the word and read it as a word (unless you do not instantly recognize it). Ok, so it takes years to do that properly and I have to admire people who are fluent in a second or third language, but you are Swedish and are reading this in English, so you have already proved you can do it! It is actually not difficult to instantly recognize the most common words sent in CW like "the" and "and". You said that you had a hard time learning languages in school, but regardless of that you can read and write in English, so you CAN learn to read and send CW, I am absolutely certain of that!

    4) I would recommend that as soon as you have leaned the characters sufficiently, try to practice receiving common words, rather than random ones. Although you might be happy to know that you can get 90 % in an exercise of 5-character groups of random characters, it is far more useful to be able to recognize 90% of a selection of 100 most common words sent to you!

    I would like to say to you, please do not give up. I am certain that you CAN learn it, but just need to experiment a bit to see what works best for you. I wonder if you 10 finger type, or if you just use two fingers? It is highly likely that when you write something you just think about what you are trying to say, not which key to press, that part comes automatically. Well Morse Code is a bit like that, you get to the stage where suddenly you automatically recognize the letters you hear, or what to do to send them, without thinking about it.

    I am now better at Morse Code than I ever was and now love sending (although I must admit I should spend more time practicing my receive than I do). I use a homebrew capacitive touch dual paddle key and keyer, I do dits on the right-paddle, use Ultimatic mode keying and practice sending plain language daily, normally at 25 WPM reading from a Kindle book. A year ago, I would never have thought I could do that. I have found that because I have to think of the next character so quickly when I am sending from reading, it greatly helps my receive speed too. So my sending has become more like typing and I can send long words normally with few errors. Of course, receiving long words in my head is a lot more difficult, as I am trying to use short term memory to remember the start of the word and sometimes forget it by the time I have got to the end, unless it is a word that I am very familiar with. Sending entirely from what I think up in my head is more difficult than reading, so I try to spend time doing that too.

    Anyway, I hope that some of what I have said might be helpful to you?

    Trust me, you CAN learn the code Alexander! Good luck!


    Richard, G4WKW.
    N8YQM, K8PG and W7TCT like this.
  2. M0LEP

    M0LEP Ham Member QRZ Page

    Only a month?! You were lucky! ;)

    My ears can quite happily deconstruct a character into its components even when it's sent at over 30wpm. I try instead to think of musical motifs, because trying not to count is like trying not to think of the pink elephant...

    That, for me, was very like learning to write; these movements, be they via pen and paper or fingers and key, make this character.

    I'd suggest picking one and sticking with it, at least to begin with. I learned with Iambic 'A', possibly because the rig defaulted that way, perhaps because it does the least messing about. Atthe last Morse Boot Camp I attended the instructor had the keyer set to Iambic 'B'. I discovered I can cope with Iambic 'B' but it's like trying to write upside down.

    There are two levels here.

    The first level, which involves learning the characters in the beginning, I found much more like learning to read and write than learning a language, and I only really made progress when I started treating it as learning to read and write, and not like a foreign language.

    The second, which involves the way conversations are conducted on-air, is definitely more like language, particularly once the abbreviations, codes and protocol are mixed in.

    Knowing a good set of words helps. The catch is how you handle things when what you hear isn't a word you know, because that's going to happen more than once in every contact, even if only with things like names, callsigns, and so on.
    G4WKW and KD1JT like this.
  3. G4WKW

    G4WKW Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    All good feedback Rick. Certainly, it is best to stick to one keying mode, if you can although, in practice, for most people, there is not a lot of difference between Ultimatic and Single-paddle emulation unless you are deliberately using Ultimatic squeeze-key techniques to form characters.

    I am biased, I know, but given a choice on keying mode, I would always recommend people to use either Ultimatic or Single-paddle emulation, regardless of whether or not they want to try using squeeze key techniques to form characters. With Ultimatic mode, you have more tolerance of timing errors, if not letting go of one paddle when hitting the other one, it will go immediately to it regardless. With Single-paddle emulation (or a physical single-paddle) it teaches you really good timing. Both of these modes help with accuracy and that to me is one of the most vital things at any speed (and something I am still struggling with and constantly trying to improve on).

    I would definitely NOT recommend either of the IAMBIC modes, especially Iambic B which to me is a total disaster. I know it is a pain when a radio keyer only provides one or both of these modes and no other, but it is really worthwhile finding a way around it, like my converter or using a separate keyer. You might thank me later!
  4. N2HUN

    N2HUN Ham Member QRZ Page

    CW takes time, like learning a second language or playing a musical instrument. Practice makes perfect. Took me about a year to get to 5 WPM so keep plugging at it.
    K8PG and WA1GXC like this.
  5. K3EY

    K3EY Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    Like watching a neurosurgeon and hoping you will "catch on" and be one too.

    Everyone learns differently, what works for one doesn't for the other.

    Find your own method and practice until you realize you actually have it.

    And it’s true, some just can’t “get it” those who say otherwise are diluted.
    N2HUN likes this.
  6. WN1MB

    WN1MB Ham Member QRZ Page

    ...deluded, too. ;)
    N2OTG, KU4X and N2HUN like this.
  7. N2HUN

    N2HUN Ham Member QRZ Page

    .... .. .... ..
  8. K3EY

    K3EY Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    Mechanic not English major or journalist;)
  9. K5TSK

    K5TSK Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    diluted works. If you don't think so, get a 5th of "Jack ". see how much it takes.
  10. K7JKZ

    K7JKZ Ham Member QRZ Page

    Simple as this: When you come to a STOP sign, hear the letters S T O P in your mind. Sound them out mentally. You go to the store and it's CLOSED. Hear the letters in your mind. C L O S E D. Play them in CW. Sound them out mentally. Feel free to invent your own method, too. Best regards! K7JKZ

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