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There are many anecdotes of hams learning Morse Code at e.g. 5wpm and then "hitting a wall" trying to gradually speed up to 15wpm.

David G. Finley, N1IRZ claims the reason is this:

Morse at 5 wpm and Morse at 15 or 20 wpm are completely different critters, and you don’t want to waste time on the wrong one.

In his essay "So You Want To Learn Morse?" he contrasts the slow "lookup table" of thinking about the individual dits and dahs, versus the faster "reflex" way of learning the whole sounds of letters. If it's not clear, he's in favor of learning the fast/reflex sounds.

I suppose this is a little akin to the Phonics vs. whole language debate in teaching English reading skills, and perhaps there's merits to both sides. But I'm willing to accept N1IRZ's claims regarding the superiority of Koch-style methods for learning fast morse code. Makes sense to me and seems to match my experience so far. What I learn of "slow Morse" won't help me with "fast Morse".

What I'm wondering, though: is the "flip side" true? If I learn "fast Morse" first, will I still need to learn "slow Morse" separately anyway before I can understand the latter?

That is, say I go ahead and stop learning the "slow" whole patterns of letters (so as not to "waste time on the wrong one"). I get good at "fast" letter sounds, and can talk to fast keyers. Will I end up unable to hear what someone using QRS is saying? Or does it end up being easier to hear slow Morse as a stre-e-e-tched out version of known sounds, versus being simply overwhelmed by uncountable dashes and dots coming from the other direction?

Since N1IRZ claims these are "completely different critters", that sort of implies I really need to learn them both to converse fluently with both sets of operators on the bands. But perhaps it is more trivial to understand slow Morse after learning fast?

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No. Stick with higher speeds. Not only will the slower speeds naturally come along with higher speeds (to some extent, you'll have to practice a bit later on), but learning at a slow speed tends to develop bad habits that are very difficult to break later, like "sounding out" the characters as dots and dashes rather than distinct sounds.

Also, finding someone on the air who's actually sending at 5wpm character speed is extremely uncommon. The lowest you might hear commonly is probably close to 10wpm, but most folks send farnesworth these days, with the character speed somewhere north of 10wpm.

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I am not sure if this can count as an answer, but my personal opinion is that 5 wpm Morse code is unusable. It can only serve purpose to pass exam. At that slow speed you have no other way but to count dits and dahs, which is simply wrong.

If you plan to use Morse code for radio communication go faster, 12 to 18 wpm is sufficient, if you can go 20 or faster - even better.

You will never need 5 wpm, but if you do, you will manage to receive.

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  • $\begingroup$ You will never need 20 wpm, either. I mean, is it a race? In the spirit of Bill Gates, 12 wpm should be enough for anybody. The only time you would need 20+ wpm is when some lid would not slow down for you. If I wanted to go faster, I would send an email. Amateur radio is a hobby. $\endgroup$ – Joe Cotton Aug 9 '16 at 20:03
  • $\begingroup$ There are operators that can do quite fast and when they meet the same kind they enjoy talking fast. It's a hobby. I never heard ham that was unwilling to slow down to make it easier for correspondent. $\endgroup$ – Pedja YT9TP Aug 9 '16 at 21:46
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The most popular method to learn CW these days is the "Kosh" method, such as is taught at lcwo.net. Essentially, the individual characters should always be sent at a high speed, say, 20 WPM, but spacing between the characters is allowed. If you are going to learn low speeds, this is the only way that I would recommend it.

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I learned Morse at 5 wpm when I was about 9 and 10 years old. Listening to CW on my radio and also during my Novice year, my speed increased to about 20 wpm and I was copying in my head with the exception of writing down names of things (name, city name, and other kinds of names that did not fall into easy head copy).

Now, about 60 years later I am still most comfortable with head copy at about 20 wpm but I can do contests and other short exchanges up to 35 wpm and usually copy a call sign at between 35 and 40 wpm.

However, and this is the big thing of my statement here. If the speed is below about 8 to 10 wpm I can't copy in my head anymore and I revert to writing things down. One reason to write down letters at such slow speed is now that I am an aged ham, I will often forget the first letters of the word before it is finished since it is so slow.

The Koch method is the way to learn these days but as I have said before on this forum -- get on the air and copy true CW QSOs -- that is the only way to improve that "head copy" in my opinion.

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Do not learn slow Morse. I learned 5 WPM when I was 10. Now I am 62 and still count dits and dahs. I can not unlearn it, I have tried many things.

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  • $\begingroup$ I learned at 5 wpm when I was 9 and now I am 69 but I can copy in my head at 20 wpm rag chew and 30 to 35 wpm contest. There were a lot of hams back then that learned at 5 wpm since that is what happened in the 1950s and many of those have gone on to head copy. Before the end of my Novice year, I was head copy at 20 using my Vibroplex Original key that cost me brand new $33.50 -- however, today, I recommend learning Koch dit speeds of around 15 to 20 wpm. $\endgroup$ – K7PEH Aug 11 '16 at 1:04

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