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8 Suggestions for Learning Morse Code – The Universal Language of Telegraphy

Morse Code

by Annie St. Francis
Morse code is a way to communicate using dots and dashes to represent letters and numbers. It’s a universal language, and was developed by Samuel Morse, and used as an effective way to communicate via telegraph. First used in the mid-1840s, Morse telegraphy transmitted communications by making indentations on a paper tape in response to electrical signals. Clock style mechanics moved the paper tape along as the message was being received. This is a fascinating part of communications history. Still used today by amateur radio operators, Morse code is an especially useful tool for communicating during times of emergency and poor radio conditions including sunspots and CMEs. Many hobbyists understand the value of preserving this skill, and sharing it with others just discovering an interest in radio!

Ready to learn a new language? Here are a few tips to help you get started!

1) Learn the basic signals, and study the Morse code alphabet. There are many who believe that the study should be focused significantly on the training of the ear. This is understandable since Morse code communicates with the use of sound. There are also more visual learning strategies. Do read on!

2) Practice saying the “dits” and “dahs” out loud and in the correct ratio and rhythm. A “dah” should last about three times as long as a “dit” when spoken. As you practice the sounds, the length of each will come more and more naturally – and very much like the native language we use in our daily lives.

3) Separate each letter by a space equivalent to a dash, and each complete word by the equivalent of several dots. The recipient of your message will hear this spacing as part of the translation. The more accurate your spacing as you relay a message, the more likely it will be correctly received.

4) Create memory tools or mnemonics. Word associations are an excellent way to learn and remember Morse code.

Visual learners might benefit from “seeing” the “dahs” and “dits” in the forms of letters. An example of this was included in the Girl Guides handbook of 1918 (and an up-to-date version was published in 1988).

Syllabic mnemonics may also be helpful tools. Create cards showing a letter, the Morse code representing that letter, and your mnemonic word. A couple great examples follow.

A * – a-GAIN

In this example, the syllable with just one letter is used for the “dit”, and the syllable with more letters and a longer sound is used for the “dah”.

G – – * HOLE IN one!

…and of course “g” is for “golf” which makes this example both fun and more easily memorable.

5) Start with simple words of just two or three letters, and build up to more complicated words and phrases from there. You might even try learning 3-letter combinations commonly found at the beginning of words:

“she” is the beginning of shells, sheets, shelters, and shenanigans

“the” is the beginning of their, them, themes, theater, and theology

“fla” is the beginning of flavor, flattery, flannel, and flabbergasted

Scrabble players! You may find yourselves having a special advantage in learning Morse code!

6) Train your hearing with Morse code recordings you can review. You might even slow the speed of the transmissions so you can hear the letters, the spacing between words, and the communications of phrases and full sentences. As your skills improve, you’ll be able to listen (and hear) the communications at faster pace.

Remember this also when you are transmitting. You may be able to “send” communications faster than these can be “received” by the listener. Before sending a lengthy message, you might test this with a shorter communication to confirm with your practice partner, or the person with whom you’re trying to communicate otherwise. In fact, something else to consider is that most people can send Morse code faster than they themselves can receive it, at least in the beginning. This can cause the person you are communicating with to overestimate the speed that you can hear the message. Eventually you start to hear “words” rather than letters, just like in any language.

7) Practice using memorable short phrases, simple rhymes, even children’s books. Create note cards with single words and short phrases (include the answer keys on the reverse side of each card). Use these to quiz yourself.

8) Invest yourself in regular practice. You’ll find that your skills improve with each practice session, and your confidence will improve too!

If you’d like to explore the possibility of a Ham Radio License, we have some helpful resources to share with you. Morse code is no longer required for licensing, but it remains an important communications tool.

You might also enjoy these books in our Radio and Communications Library!