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Learn CW (Morse Code) as a language

by Duane Ausherman in 1988

This was first written, in 1988, when one had to learn something to get a ham license. 

Over the years I have heard people discussing how difficult it is to learn the code.  I will never forget the difficulty I had in learning the code, but I finally did and now I love it.  I began thinking about my learning process in an effort to try to understand this problem.  Remembering the false starts and blind alleys I followed, brings back the frustration that many voice today.  The old excuses of laziness, lack of motivation, "I just can't hear those dits", apply as much as ever, but doesn't explain most of the problems.  So why is it so difficult? Here are my conclusions.  CW is a language, just like English or Spanish.  We receive (hear) it the same way as other languages, but we transmit (speak) it by a different method.  If any doubt exists about CW being a language, check with Webster.  Think about sign language.  It is received with the eyes and sent with the hands.  Nobody argues that signing isn't a language.  Fluent means the ability to speak effortlessly in a smooth and rapid manner.  Let's review how languages are learned.   

The first thing that a child utters is usually "ma ma" or "da da," because it is something that is very important to the child.  This first word is spoken at about the normal rate of fluency.  Then words are added and always at the rate of fluency.  As the child's experiences expand, the vocabulary follows.  Historically we have learned that code is some kind of converted English.  We start with the full vocabulary, and all efforts are put into increasing the speed.  This is about as backwards as possible.  Imagine learning Spanish by somehow getting the full vocabulary and speaking the words slowly, then a bit faster and then faster yet.  The words would sound completely different at each speed and must be learned all over again.  Actually CW is an international language and little of it can be taken literally in English.  Maybe we can learn something by talking to those "high speed" CW operators (one capable of at least 30 to 40 wpm and understanding by hearing, with no pencil).  The question is "At what speed did you feel that you were fluent with CW?" The answers came in around 30-35 WPM.  These operators were eventually able to add another 5 to 25 wpm to their speed.  Some of their comments were quite revealing.  "I hear words and phrases, not letters." "When the speed drops down to about 18 WPM I must grab a pencil, as I forget what has been sent." "I only use a pencil for notes, just as I do with voice." Fast CW is just fluency in Morse code. 

You might ask "Why learn 35 wpm when I only need 20 wpm for the fastest test?" That is a good question and the answer is easy.  The Extra requirement of 20 wpm is so slow and under the rate of fluency that it is actually hard to copy.  It's natural to think that the top license would show proficiency but it doesn't.  After a few years many lose the code.  Code is like riding a bicycle, once you really learn it, it comes back quickly.  

Let's compare English to CW.  English has 44 phonemes or phonics.  These are sounds, that in various combinations make up our words.  CW has only 2 sounds that make up all words.  English has about 50,000 words in common speech and about 10 times that totally.  Ham radio CW has about 100 words in common use, but of course you may use the whole English language in rag chewing.  Many English words have more than 4 letters, even 10 or more.  Of the "100" CW words, the largest is only 4 letters.  There is no punctuation in any "spoken" language, as that is only for written words.  English rules for spelling and grammar do not apply to CW.  As with any spoken language there is no upper or lower case. 

What are the requirements for learning this simple language? Anybody who can communicate in any language can learn CW.  What about the person who is tone deaf? Tone deaf hams lose their ability to understand speech long before CW.  This is because it's possible to adjust the CW pitch to a tone that is still within range.  Some hams are only on CW because they can't hear speech easily.  People who seem to have the easiest time with CW are those with musical ability.  In the same way that some people speak slowly and some quickly, the same follows for CW.  Virtually everybody can learn 20 wpm, except maybe those with severe learning handicaps.  I feel that the former FCC medical exception for code was in most cases in error or fraudulent.  Almost any medical condition that would prohibit one from learning the code would also prohibit one from using a ham license. 

In CW classes, I have sent CQ at 35 wpm to operators claiming they were capable of only 8 or 10 wpm and asked if anybody could identify it.  Typically the answer is "That's CQ, I can copy that at any speed.  "Congratulations, you have just proven that you can copy 35 WPM.  Now you just need a larger vocabulary!" It might at first sound silly, but it's true.  This clue tells us that we need to hear the code the same way that we would eventually expect to use it.  The same as any language.    Just like an infant learns words that are important to it's life, we should only try to learn words that we will actually use.  So let's first learn ham radio words.  A conversation, on the air, is called a QSO.  A QSO has important characteristics to understand.  DX, contest QSOs, and traffic messages are exceptions that are highly specialized.  Let's deal with the standard QSO. 

The first transmission of a QSO is standardized for the whole world.  It conveys only 3 pieces of information, partly as a test of conditions.  If one or more of these are lost then little time has been wasted.  There is nothing worse than someone sending for 10 minutes and getting nothing.  The first 2 of these 3 are designed to convey information that can allow changes to be made to improve the quality of the contact.  Over 50% of the words in the first transmission are just as recognizable as CQ.  Each of these could be considered as a freebie.  Stuff that is so recognizable that you just know what is coming along next.  What really happens is that this easy stuff provides a kind of breathing space and serves to alert you as to what is next.  

The first thing sent is the "RST" or signal report.  If the received report is poor then something must be done to improve the signal.  Two things can possibly be done, increase the power or change the antenna.  This may be the time to warm up the linear amplifier.  The second thing sent is the QTH, or location.  This may tell you the direction to turn the antenna.  If you increase power or turn the antenna, or both, then you can be sure that the other station will hear you better.  The third is the name and it is for politeness. 

First, the signal report, RST is a number of only three digits.  The "R" is for readability and is usually a 5, sometimes a 4 and rarely a 3.  The "S" is for strength and can be anything between 1 and 9.  Usually it's 5 or higher.  The "T" is for tone and is always a 9, due to today's modern equipment and clean commercial power.  We are going to hear the letters RST, which, like CQ, we can copy at any speed.  Then we get a 4 or 5 and now it's time to wake up because the only important thing is about to come along.  It's the "S" and in this example a 7, so write it down, now the useless "T" a 9, don't write it.  Then here comes the whole thing again.  A typical report would look like this "RST 579 RST 579" and you are only looking for the 7.  A total of 12 "things" have been sent and you only need one, maybe two of them.  You even had a good idea what it might be.  Now isn't that easy?

Second, the QTH, or location, is tougher as it is something that you will actually need to copy.  All is not lost because nobody has gone to jail for not getting it the first time.  To ask for a repeat, just say "QTH ?" On the FCC test you must copy it.  More about this later. 

Third, is the name, and this is simple.  Most CW operators have shortened any long name to 4 letters or less.  To ask for a repeat just say "name ?" If you never get the name then just fall back to the old standby "OM," meaning "old man." This must be the only hobby where you compliment someone by calling them old. 

The second transmission isn't as formal, but may include a description of the station, the weather, your age and profession.  Now you are not hearing many of the 100 words, but real information proceeded by one of the 100, such as "wx cool es cldy." This translates to "My weather is cool and cloudy." the term "wx" alerts you to words about weather.  Additional transmissions would branch off into mutual interests and follow no pattern.  Now you must actually copy CW or say "73" and move on to another QSO.  Many DX stations do this, as they have limited English and can only copy the basic QSO. 

What are these 100 words in Morse Co? 

The first 26 are our alphabet.  Sometimes one letter has a meaning that is one or more words.  The letter "R" means "I have received all that you have sent." The letter "C" means "yes." The letter "K" means "It is your turn to transmit".  The next 10 are the digits from 0 to 9.  Another 10 are the Q signals.  About 10 "Q" signals are all that we really use so forget that long list.  Most of the rest of the 100 words are only 2 or 3 letters long ie.  "hw?" this means "How well did you copy?" The longest word is "name" and it has no secret meaning. 

Many students seem to be thrown by the punctuation.  The FCC test requires that you be able to answer questions about the message sent.  Failure to get punctuation can't possibly cause you miss a question on the test.  For example, "My QTH is Galt, CA." and you have missed a period or comma.  How can you not get the answer to the question? The testing people might use that phrase, but on the air it would be "QTH Galt CA Galt CA." Even with that highly abbreviated form, you should be able to answer the question.   Now you spot the question mark and the slant bar.  They are wonderful ways to say a lot by sending a little.  The "?" means "here is a question." "Name ?" means "Please tell me your name." The slant bar, or fraction bar, is used in a call sign as in this example.  "JT1/W6REC" means "I am a portable station in Mongolia (JT) and my home call is W6REC." Don't you think learning the little slant bar is a good trade off? These two are used, not as punctuation, but instead, as a group of several words.  The FCC test won't be about an easy "first transmission" because it's impossible to ask 10 questions from the 3 bits of information in the standard QSO.  This test will include information that would typically come from 2 or 3 transmissions, so that 10 questions can be asked.  The good news is that you will have learned at the speed of fluency and the information that comes at you at 13-20 WPM sounds really slow and is easily copied. 


In order to analyze existing learning methods we should consider our goals.  We need conversational language.  We are doing the same thing as sitting around the living room and chatting.  Nobody is taking notes or transcribing, as in a business conference or legal proceeding.  If the casual conversation turns technical or to some specialty then our rate of speaking and understanding will slow down.  The same thing happens in any language, as well as in CW.  

1.  The Farnsworth method. 

This method makes use of the fact that the brain can decipher the dits and dahs at a high speed.  The letters are sent at a fast speed and lots of space is left between each one so that the brain has increased recognition time.  Some of the code tapes use 22 wpm for the letter speed and only shorten up the space to increase the speed.  The Farnsworth method was first described in the late 50s and has become a standard way to learn CW.  

2.  Military

The military method is sometimes touted as "the way." The purpose of this form of communication was to provide written copy to another person.  The person "copying" the code would hear a symbol and immediately type it.  The sound triggered a motor response, but no understanding.  The information received was 5 letter code groups, which included digits, and was unreadable until someone decoded it.  Not very suitable for our use.  

3.  Morse Code Tapes. 

Thousands of people have studied code tapes and have learned CW this way.  There are several problems with this method.  Many students report that they eventually memorize the tape and aren't actually learning code.  Some were not even aware that this was happening.  In order to reduce this memorizing, some tricks have been developed, such as spelling the words backwards.  To copy this it's necessary to write it all down.  Imagine hearing a language backwards in order to learn it forwards.  None of the tapes that I have heard are concentrating on the basic vocabulary, or what I call the "100 words." The quality of some tapes are very poor.  To compare this to learning Spanish, it would be similar to hearing poorly spoken Spanish, about an unknown subject, in a crowded and noisy room.  Does that sound easy? Tapes do have lots of potential.  The tapes just need the right words recorded.  Use the tendency to memorize as an advantage and just hear the basic 100, randomly, at the speed of fluency.  

4.  Morse Code computer programs. 

I have reviewed a few of the programs but haven't yet found one that is designed to do this job.  The first problem is that all of them require one to type.  When one learns Spanish, does one type something to indicate understanding? We have no need to type messages, only understand the meanings of sounds.  Why respond to a meaningful sound with a motor movement? This will only slow one down.  Typing ability shouldn't be a prerequisite for learning CW. 

What should a computer program do? What we need is Farnsworth words.  The whole word sent quickly, at the speed of fluency, and then a big space.  At least two of the popular programs can be fooled into doing this.  Use the part of the program that will send a text of your choice.  Make a text file of "words" with lots of spaces added between. 


5.  On the air practice. 

This method is divided into two parts.  Listening to code practice stations and entering into actual contacts.  The ARRL sends code practice on several bands and at different speeds.  The code is perfect and is text from QST magazine, so at least it is about amateur radio subjects.  The first disadvantage is that you must contend with QRM, (interference) QRN, (static) and QSB (fading).  Learn the code, then you can learn to contend with the real world and its distractions.  The second disadvantage is that you must have the equipment to receive the signals and know how to use it.  CW signals that are poorly tuned, are hard to copy. 

The third disadvantage is that one would never send these words on the air.  One private party sends code practice on 40 meters.  This code is text from the Bible.  To learn Spanish, would you listen to tapes of a Spanish translation of the Bible? Maybe, if you plan to be a missionary, in a Spanish speaking country and plan to give sermons in code.  Is it any wonder that code is a challenge to learn this way?  Having actual contacts on the air is a commonly advised method, and it will work, but has some inherent problems.  All three of the disadvantages mentioned above for "on the air" code practice apply here too.  In addition, the code heard on the air is far from perfect.  Perfect code is much easier to copy, and this is especially important for the new student.  Another disadvantage is that the student must also learn the necessary motor skills of sending CW.  One aspect of "on the air" learning is both an advantage and a disadvantage.  The advantage is that when a someone is trying to communicate with you, you have a vested interest and probably greater concentration.  After all, if we miss what the computer or tape has sent we can just rewind it.  You might be so interested to hear what somebody is saying to you that you really try.  Or you might just freeze up and get nothing.  Your personality determines how you respond to the challenge.  One big advantage to "on the air" practice is that you learn the equipment, propagation, make friends and get practice doing what you want to do anyway, Do you really want to communicate using code, or just pass the test?

The disadvantage is that you may learn poor procedures, use a lot of time and won't hear fast relevant code.  The most efficient method is to hear fast, correct code from the start.  I feel that current novice habits are so far from the world standard that bad habits are guaranteed to be learned.  Why learn poor habits and then hope to relearn good ones? More about this later.  


Here is the sequence to learning CW the most efficient way.  Second, learn to send the code with a paddle and electronic keyer combination.  Third, learn to copy off the air.  Began sending as soon as possible. 

Hear are the three ways to hear this 100 words.  

1.  Learn to copy the 100 words by hearing them in perfect code.  A computer can send perfect code from text files made up from these 100 words.  None of the programs I have seen are intended to do this.  At least one of the popular shareware programs can be made to do this.  The trick is to enter enough spaces between the words to give the time you need.  As you improve, edit the file and reduce the spaces between words.  Make an audio tape of these files for use away from the computer.  Find a friend who is willing to send the words to you. 

I recommend that a certain sequence be used for the alphabet.  This may not work for all, but give it a try.   


TMO0, that's the letter O and the number zero




Notice that the same letter comes up in more than one sequence.  It can fit into more than one logical order.  Practice the EISH5 until it's easy, then go on to the next sequence.  Many letters don't fit any order, just tough it out.  

2.  Learn to send.  Acquire a paddle and electronic keyer combination to practice sending.  Do not start with a straight key.  Send the 100 words in any order, quickly.  One of the daily drills I recommend is to send the alphabet as quickly as possibly.  Keep track of the number of seconds required.  Ignore the mistakes, they will disappear as you get better.  One of the things we hear from beginners is that they can send faster than they can receive.  High speed operators report that they can copy faster than they can send.  I have heard two theories to explain this.  As you send CW, your brain has knowledge of what's coming along.  This advance warning gives time for the brain to remember the dits and dahs.  In receiving there is no warning and the brain must put it into context.  The other theory is that different parts of the brain are involved in sending and receiving.  If that is true then it follows that the sending part can then teach the receiving part, and it works, to some extent.  The high speed operator is limited, in sending, by the speed of the motor functions.  In my case, the brain runs out of gas in the 50 wpm range for receive and my hand gets pretty sloppy at 35 wpm.  I am ambidextrous, or mixed handed in many activities.  I write left handed and learned to send right handed.  I am lucky, as I can do both, to some extent, simultaneously.  Why don't you learn to send with your other hand?  

3.  Learn to receive and send by making contacts on the air.  Most of the code is far from perfect, but this is real life.  One helpful thing that you can do for your first QSOs is to write the information that you expect to send.   

Typical first transmission.  

________ De W6REC

RST 599 599

QTH Galt CA Galt CA

Name Duane Duane

Hw Cpy?


  Typical second transmission

 __________ De W6REC

RR Tom

Rig TS850

Ant 3 el Yagi up 80 feet

Age 50 50 yrs

Wx sunny es warm


The blank spaces represent the other ham's call sign.  You can fill it in and then you have the first transmission ready for sending from your paper.  After the first few QSOs the tension will reduce and you won't need the paper.  Notice that I didn't use the K at the end of the transmission to mean "It is your turn to transmit." I recommend that you don't use this because it's going out of style.  It is still used by some operators but actually it's rather useless. 

When you send information, the call signs and then stop sending, most people will figure out that it's their turn, so why tell them?

Suppose you get so nervous that you copy nothing and have no reason to think you can save it? In the worst case you can just leave and do nothing, nobody is watching.  The other station can assume that you had a phone call or conditions changed.  Or just wait until the person stops sending and send your "panic" message.  Make this message up ahead of time and keep it ready.  It could say something like this. 



No cpy

Tu QSO 73

De W6REC SK.   

Or it could say the truth, "I can not copy I am going to kill myself 73.  



This list can be easily debated as to whether it is too long or too short.  The list I have used for years has grown and shrunk and currently is about 97 "words". 


1.  The 26 letters of our alphabet 26

2.  The digits 0-9 10


Q signals

QRL-This frequency is busy

QRM-I have interference

QRN-I have static

QRS-Please send more slowly

QRT-I must go now

QRZ-Who is calling me?

QSL-I understand

QSO-A radio contact

QSY-Change frequency

QTH-My location is

QRX-Please stand by 11


A-See "Funny numbers" below


AGE-You may add 10 years for respect


BEAM- Type of antenna

BK-Break in (its your turn)

C-Yes, usually used as an answer for the question QRL

CL-I am closing my station

CL?-What is your call sign?

CPY-Do you copy?

CQ-General call of someone looking for a QSO

CUL-See you later


DSW-Goodbye, in Russian

DX-Long distance, usually out of this country



FB-Fine business, everything is OK

HI-Joke, I am kidding

HW-How, short for "How do you copy?"


K-I am finished, it is your turn to transmit

LID-Poor operator

LOOP-Type of antenna

N-See "Funny numbers" below

NAME-My radio name is

OM-Old man, a compliment to a good operator

OP-Operator, used instead of name



R-One or more Rs means that I have copied all.  Similar to QSL

RPT- Repeat (This one is totally useless)

RST-Signal report.  R is readability, S is strength and T is tone quality

RIG-My equipment is

SAN-A compliment is Japanese, when added to a name as a suffix.  Example Jimsan

T-See "Funny numbers" below


TEST-Contest, Ex.  CQ TEST.  Sometimes "I am testing."

TU,TKS,TNX-Thanks, TU is the most popular today. 


WATT-Power output


YAGI-Type of beam antenna

YRS-Years, as in age

73-Best regards, polite way to say goodbye. 

88-Love and kisses, usually used between persons of opposite gender, regardless of age or relationship.                 

?-To indicate that a question has been asked QTH? means "Where do you live?"

/- Shows portable operation

(8 DITS)-Mistake, Start the word over..  Advanced operators abbreviate this with 2 dits, widely spaced, "E E." The most advanced operators tend to ignore their mistakes, as they know that the copier will fix it mentally.  We do this automatically in casual speech.   


BT-Pause, similar to the verbal "Ahhh" that just fills in. 


AS-Standby for a few seconds


AR-End of transmission, no longer in general use

The line over the letters is used to indicate that the letters are run together with no spacing. 


These "numbers" are used in some DX and contest QSOs and are included here because you may come across them and wonder.  It's another example of a short cut.  

N-The abbreviation for the number 9.  This is derived from the last two parts of the 9, not from the first letter of the word "nine." Example, "RST 5NN" FOR 599

T-The abbreviation for zero, in the days before the electronic keyer it was a long dah and can still be heard occasionally today by operators using a "bug". 

A-The abbreviation for the number one, in this case its the first 2 parts of the digit. 

This is my explanation of learning CW as a language.  I would appreciate feedback, suggestions or complaints to  

Put W6REC or NC6M into google to see some contest records and results. 


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