Learning Morse Code - Roadblocks

If you say you want to learn Morse Code you'll very likely get plenty of advice. Inevitably, some of it will be less than helpful. While it's probably best forgotten, some of it comes up again and again, anyway. It's not clear to me why the subject of learning Morse Code should attract so much more than its fair share of unhelpful advice, but it does. Most of it seems to be offered in a spirit of helpfulness, not obstructiveness, so perhaps, in part, it's because the advisors responsible have forgotten some (or all) of the following basic facts?

Here's some of the advice I've generally found less than helpful:

It's Easy!

Some folk will insist that it's only difficult to learn Morse if you think it's going to be difficult, and that kids who've never got the idea it might be difficult can learn it easily. Kids may well learn Morse more easily. Or they may not. Individuals learn in different ways at different paces, and will encounter different difficulties along the way. Sure, you can make it more difficult for yourself by setting up mental roadblocks, and thinking it's going to be difficult may be one of them. Another is thinking it's going to be easy and then being discouraged when you find you're not making the progress you'd been led to expect. Learning Morse will take what it takes, and it will be harder for some than others. Only you can find out how easy it'll be for you to learn, and it's probably best to ignore folk who try to tell you otherwise.

Just Do It!

This school of advisors seem to see themselves as Inscrutable Old Masters of Morse, and model their advice on the kinds of lines often heard from old masters in martial arts films. Typical examples include "You don't want it enough!" and "There is no think. There is only DO!" which is all very well in movies, but usually isn't a helpful answer when someone asks for advice.

It's A Language

Well, if you take into account all the abbreviations, codes and so on, then maybe it is, of a sort. However, Morse itself is just a set of character representations. Learning Morse is much more like learning to read and write all over again than learning a new language, and thinking of it as a language just adds an extra unnecessary mental barrier to the learning process, which will probably make it more difficult to learn.

Don't Count!

Way too many folk insist on saying "Don't count the dits and dahs." The trouble with this is that it's a completely negative instruction. When you try to listen to code and "Don't count..." keeps coming to mind then it very likely brings with it undertones of "You're doing it wrong!" that just get in the way of learning. By all means encourage folk to listen to the overall sound, but remember that what matters is that they get from the sound to the character (and vice versa) with as few obstacle on the path as possible.

The One True Way

Some folk will offer advice or instruction, and when it turns out not to help you they will blame you for not paying attention, or not listening, or in some other manner just not doing it correctly their way. The two most common examples are probably those who push the Koch method and those who push straight keys.

The straight key pushers are folk who'll insist you must learn to send with a straight key first. They'll go on about how it's the only way to learn the correct timing, and that if you don't learn to use a straight key first then you'll never master Morse. No doubt there are plenty of fine Morse operators who learned using straight keys, but I'd be very surprised if there weren't plenty who've learned with paddles and keyers, too. The straight key pushers can get very pushy, and sometimes even try to make folk who havn't learned to use a straight key feel inferior by calling keyers and paddles things like crutches, stabilisers, or training wheels. If they do it's probably best to ignore them.

The Koch pushers are folk who'll insist that the Koch method is the way Morse should always be taught. That caused me so much trouble that it gets a whole page to itself.

"I wouldn't start from here..."

Many will say that Morse Code is all about sound. That's true enough, from an amateur radio point of view (though other branches of the signalling fraternity would probably disagree). Some will go on to say things like "All visual references to Morse Code should be banned from the Internet", arguing that even having seen a chart of characters, dots and dashes will encumber students and set them up to fail. There's almost no chance someone wishing to learn Morse has never having seen a chart of dots and dashes. It's no help to students if a teacher or mentor is telling them they will fail because they started from the wrong place, especially when there's no way they could start from what the teacher consider's the right place.

"When I was a boy..."

Quite a few are prepared to tell you about their experience of learning Morse, and some of the stories are fascinating. However, a few folk will insist on telling you how they learned Morse when they were kids half a century ago with some sort of bare-minimum equipment and other such handicaps, in a manner remininiscent of the Yorkshire cardboard box sketch. I guess they think they're offering encouragement, possibly in an "If I could do it that way then you could too." way, but more usually in a "Look how hard it was for me but I managed it so why can't you?" way. Often they'll then go on at length about how much easier it is to learn Morse nowadays, what with all the computer programs, sound files, web sites and so on that are available now. They often seem unable to grasp just how utterly different your learning experience is, and how irrelvant and unhelpful this "advice" of theirs is. Unfortunately, they tend to take offense if you point out the irrelevance and unhelpfulness to them, so I guess they're best ignored, but that can be hard to do...

One Hundred Percent

Some folk will insist on perfection. There are situations where perfection is desirable. For the most part, amateur radio QSOs aren't among them. 'Good enough' is all that's needed. Aim to be at least 'good enough', then move along.

Enter Contests!

It is possible contests are, for some people, a good way to develop operating skill, because they involve contacts with limited content in a simple pattern, so they should be contacts that are relatively easy to follow and complete. However, they also have accuracy requirements, which may add pressure to the situation, and effectively out-weigh any benefits the relatively simple exchanges might have introduced. Most contest entrants are going to be trying to work at a speed that gives them the best rate of contacts, so they'll usually be working at quite high speeds, and stations may be crammed closer together than usual, too. All that will make the Morse harder to keep up with. A few CW contests make a point of having a "QRS corral" which may give less confident operators a chance to participate, but many don't, so, unless you're working from somewhere that'll give participants a rare bonus of some sort (for which they'll be prepared to slow down a lot), I suspect trying to take part in CW contests will not be much help to folk who're learning Morse. Folk who are already familiar with (and enjoy) contests using other modes may find they make good listening practice, though.

Bring Back Code Tests!

There are folk who seem to believe that compulsory Morse Code testing was what kept Morse Code alive, that it should never have been dropped from the licensing requirements, and that it should be re-instated forthwith. They'll drop "bring back code tests" comments into all sorts of places, and they often seem to look down their noses at "No Code Hams" (by which they seem to mean anyone who hasn't had to pass a Morse test to get their licence), even when those folk are trying to learn Morse Code. It doesn't seem to occur to them that at least some of the folk learning Morse Code these days would not be learning it if Morse Code testing was still a compulsory part of the licensing process, nor that the dropping of compulsory code testing means that anyone who is trying to learn Morse Code these days is doing so because thay want to learn Morse Code, not because they have to.

© M0LEP (First version June 2013. Last updated April 2018.)