Learn CW (Morse Code) as a language
You can see that I wrote this article 30 years ago. Some of it may not be relevant in 2023.
I had been teaching classes and individual Hams for years and decided to write it up for all to read. Very shortly after that, the FCC removed the requirement for most code. They were bowing to the industry that wanted to sell more Ham radio equipment. They wanted to sell rigs to those that were just too lazy to learn Morse code.
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 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, and “I just can’t hear those dits” apply as much as ever but don’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 manner. Let’s review how we learn languages.
The first thing that a child utters is usually “mama” or “dada” because it is very important to the child. This first word was spoken at about the average 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 converted English. We start with the full vocabulary, and all efforts are to increase the speed. This is about as backward 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.
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 should I 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 hard to copy. It’s natural to think that the top license would show proficiency, but it doesn’t. After a few years, many, more or less, lose the code. The code is like riding a bicycle, once you 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 of the words. English has about 50,000 words in everyday speech and about 10-20 times that total. Ham radio CW has about 100 words in everyday use, but of course, you may use the whole English language while rag chewing. Many English words have more than four letters, even ten or more. Of the “100” CW words, the largest is only four 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 the code was, in most cases, in error or fraudulent. Almost any medical condition that would prohibit one from learning the code would also prevent 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 only 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 as an infant learns words that are important to its life, we should only try to learn words that we will use. So let’s first learn ham radio words. A conversation on the air is called a QSO. A QSO has essential characteristics to understand. DX, contest QSOs, and traffic messages are highly specialized exceptions. Let’s deal with the standard QSO.
The first transmission of a QSO is standardized for the whole world. It conveys only three 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 three 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. We considered each of these as a freebie. Stuff that is so recognizable that you know what is coming along next. What 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 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. The location 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, the RST is only three digits. The “R” is for readability and is usually a 5, sometimes a four, and rarely a 3. The “S” is for strength and can be anything between 1 and 9. Often, it’s five 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 of what it might be. Now isn’t that easy?
Second, the QTH, or location, is harder as it is something that you will 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, 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 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 your profession. Now you do not hear 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 the weather. Additional transmissions would branch off into mutual interests and follow no pattern. Now it may be time to 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 Code?
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” says, “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 frequently use, so forget that long list. Most of the rest of the 100 words are only 2 or 3 letters long, for example, “hw?” this means “How well did you copy?” The longest word is “name,” and it has no secret meaning.
A REVIEW OF TRADITIONAL METHODS
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 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 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.
The military method is sometimes touted as “the way.” The purpose of this form of communication was to provide a 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 five letter code groups, which included digits, and was unreadable until someone decoded it. This method would not be 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 learning code. Some were not even aware that this was happening. To reduce this memorization, we have some tricks that have been developed, such as spelling the words backward. To copy, it’s necessary to write it all down. Imagine hearing a language backward to learn it forward. None of the tapes that I have listened to are concentrating on the basic vocabulary, or what I call the “100 words.” The quality of some tapes is inferior. To compare this to learning Spanish 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 a lot of potential. The tapes need the right words recorded. Use the tendency to memorize as an advantage and 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 found one that is designed for 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 do not 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 are Farnsworth words. The whole word was 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 in 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, and then you can learn to tolerate 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 the 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 contact 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 the “on the air” code practice apply here too. Besides, 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 for sending CW. One aspect of “on the air” learning is both an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is that when someone is trying to communicate with you, you have a vested interest and probably higher concentration. After all, if we miss what the computer or tape has sent, we can rewind it. You should be so interested to hear what your contact is saying that you really try. Or you might 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 and propagation. You will make friends and get practice doing what you want to do anyway.
Do you want to communicate using the code or only pass the test?
The disadvantage is that you may learn improper procedures, use a lot of time, and won’t hear the fast, relevant code. The most efficient method is to understand the 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 of learning CW in the most efficient way. Second, learn to send the code with a paddle and electronic keyer combination. Third, learn to copy off the air. I suggest sending the code as soon as possible.
Here are the three ways to hear these 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 of 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 audiotape of these files for use away from the computer. Find a friend who is willing to send the words to you.
I recommend that you use a particular sequence for learning the alphabet. This applies to the way our brain learns. We learn through the process of eliminating things. This method 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 series. Many letters don’t fit any order. You will have to 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 possible. Keep track of the number of seconds required. Ignore the mistakes, as 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 can copy more swiftly than they can send.
I have heard two theories to explain this. As you send CW, your brain knows about what’s coming along. This 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 50-60 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. Could you learn to send it 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
Typical second transmission
__________ De W6REC
Ant 3 el Yagi up 80 feet
Age 50 50 yrs
Wx sunny es warm
__________ De W6RECThe 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 has gone out of style.
When you send information and the call signs and then stop sending, most people will figure out that it’s their turn, so why tell them?
The basic 100 words
1. The 26 letters of our alphabet 26
2. The digits 0-9 10
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?
QSO-A radio contact
QTH-My location is
QRX-Please stand by a moment
A-See “Funny numbers” below
BEAM- Type of antenna
BK- (Please break in)
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
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.
YAGI-Type of beam antenna
YRS-Years, as in age
73-Best regards, polite way to say goodbye.
88-Love and kisses are usually used between persons of the 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, this would mean to start the word over. Advanced operators abbreviate this with two 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
Run these three special words 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 shortcut.
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.” For example, “RST 5NN” = 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.
Put W6REC or NC6M into google to see some contest records and results.
Updated 30 March 2023