Language Learning and CW

I’m 5+ weeks into the Intermediate course from CWOps (having completed the Basic course last fall) and I’ve been contemplating my learning path lately and how it relates to spoken language learning.

WARNING: This will be more of a brain-dump style post with lots of rambling on and on.

You’ve been warned. 😉

Through high school I studied Mandarin Chinese. All 4 years. My teacher wasn’t much of a teacher. He was tenured (or whatever the equivalent was for that level of educator) and didn’t care much about our learning as much as drawing his paycheck. He did, however, really like high school girls which is why the majority of his students didn’t get scores worth the work they put into them – unless they were cute that is.

I wasn’t cute (nor am I now).

I also wasn’t a high school girl (nor am I now).

About the only things I remember learning in his class was how to swear in Chinese and that some Chuck Norris movies have nudity.

Seriously awesome as a teenager to have a teacher show movies all semester.

That isn’t the point I guess. The point is that I really didn’t learn how to speak, read, or write Mandarin until I found myself living on the island of Taiwan at 19 years old.

Photo by Mark Ivan on Unsplash

Taiwan is a beautiful albeit crowded place, filled with wonderful people and amazing food. I spent two wonderful years there learning and growing as a person.

I’m getting hungry just thinking about my time there…..

Photo by Andy Wang on Unsplash

I was fully immersed in the language, people, and culture and found my language skills exploding.

You see, I had to use it daily if I wanted to get around.

Many people were learning English. It is taught in all the schools and just about everybody wants to practice some words with you. Even more important to a language learner like myself, they all were extremely willing to be patient with a foreigner trying to speak and hold a conversation in Chinese.

They were also quite forgiving as some words, if spoken with the wrong intonation, can have some embarrassing outcomes. (My worst was 引導 (Yǐndǎo), which means guide, but if the tones are wrong refer to female genitalia. Couldn’t figure out why they were giggling so much until much later.)

Yeah…..languages are fun 😉

I carried a small notebook with me everywhere and wrote down common Chinese characters that I saw during my day. I would rush back to my apartment each evening and spend time reviewing my list, looking them up in my huge dictionary, and making notes on pronunciation and meaning in the margins.

The next day I would go through the same process again, only I would also be looking for the characters from the previous day and making sure I could recognize them when I saw them.

Within about 6 months I was able to read common words and phrases to navigate the city I lived in, and by the end of my first year living there I could pick up a newspaper or magazine and understand most of what I saw.

Immersion is key to language learning.

I’m using this example and juxtaposing it with learning CW because with both, there is an association of something that doesn’t look or sound like what we already understand (Chinese words don’t sound like my native English, and CW doesn’t sound like ABC’s).

Ok, maybe not an apples-to-apples comparison. More like an apples-to-antelopes one.

Mandarin is a natural language, one that is spoken by millions world-wide and all languages (that I know of) have word-for-word associations with my native English, or at least some phrase or meaningful equivalent if not word-for-word

CW is a way to spell words, which at higher speeds can become more about word recognition than character recognition, but it is still individual characters being sent.

People don’t go around spelling out their words in English to each other.


And Mandarin is even less about spelling as characters themselves are whole words. No phonetic spelling. While they do have “bo po mo fo” to help teach character recognition, it isn’t an alphabet.

But bear with me.

The process of learning the alphabet in CW is a fairly quick one. I say fairly quick because unlike learning a new spoken language, you already know the letters. You just need to associate the alphabet characters with a new sound.

While there are many methods to picking up the basics, they usually involve repetition of the characters individually at first, then combined with others.

Some methods involve starting with whole words.

Choose the method that works best for your learning style.

My notebook I carried around every day, jotting down new characters and referencing ones I had already seen before is similar to taking recorded CW sound files ( – seriously though, bookmark that site!) with me in the car or walking the dogs. The MP3 files with the “CW – spoken word – CW repeated” allow me to try to beat the announcer and if I don’t, have a follow up that reinforces the correct character or word.

Once the ABC’s were understood and I had a relatively good level of confidence in recognition there, I would make a point of taking the street signs along my path and vocalizing dits and dahs to sound them out as I go.

Morse Code Ninja has many, many files available which include some to build upon the alphabet with two-letter words, three-letter words, common QSO words, and more. All at speeds from 15 to 50 words per minute.

My goal the last year has been to make CW a part of my daily routine and get to 18-20 wpm on the air. Right now, 9 months in to my journey I am comfortable at sustained 15-16 wpm on the air (real speed, not Farnsworth), and 25-27 wpm for up to 5 character words (Farnsworth).

CWOps helps a ton with that goal, providing a structured program and twice-weekly sync ups with others to ensure that I get feedback and tips. My progression accelerated substantially after 4 months of learning on my own once I got into the course.

Progression in CW, like in language, is a function of time spent immersed in the practice. Fortunately you don’t need to travel to the other side of the planet to become immersed.

Just down to your shack.

How much time do you spend each day hearing others sending CW on the air?

How much time do you spend on the air sending it yourself?

In other words, how immersed are you?

I haven’t done either yet today.

Better get at it…..






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: