On learning to type

On learning to type

Of all the subjects I took in school, none were so useful as typing, which I took in the ninth grade. My taking it was actually a happy accident: our school had both an academic and a technical track, and had I taken technical drawing as I’d intended I would have wound up in a class with the students taking the latter, with the result that I would have had, let us say, less experienced and less able teachers for key subjects such as Science and Maths.

As I was a straight-A student this was less than desirable, and between the principal and my mother I was convinced to switch. While I had really enjoyed technical drawing, I have never regretted the choice, though, as it’s the only one of my high school subjects (besides languages) that I still use on a daily basis. I can crank out a respectable sixty to seventy words a minute if I know what I want to write (knowing what to write about is a whole different problem…)

I had heard of alternate keyboard layouts to the standard QWERTY before, but did not think going to the trouble of learning one was worth the effort. Then Thursday, on a whim, I decided to give Colemak a try (because learning all things JavaScript is not already enough of a challenge).

Colemak keyboard layout
The Colemak layout
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

It took me an afternoon to learn the new key positions and four days later I’m already up to about thirty words a minute. For the past two days I’ve been typing almost exclusively in Colemak – I’m typing this post with it – and I’m rather enjoying it. (Though there was a brief moment of panic when my computer went on standby and the password wouldn’t work when I powered up again and couldn’t remember which layout I’d left my computer on. Turns out I’d forgotten my password starts with a capital letter.)

I don’t know if I’ll switch to it permanently. I think it could be fun to know multiple keyboard layouts, and if it really can increase my typing speed and ward off carpal tunnel syndrome it would be worth it. At the moment my forearms and hands are getting a little sore if I type for longer periods of time. I’m chalking it up to my fingers moving in different patterns than they’re used to, but if it persists that would certainly be the end of Colemak for me.

Whatever I decide, I think I’ll be permanently remapping my Caps Lock key to Backspace, cause that just makes so much sense I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself.

12 thoughts on “On learning to type

    1. I absolutely stuck with it, and now type faster with no wrist pain at all after a whole day behind the computer.

      I can’t type in Afrikaans any more, though. Aside from Colemak being optimised for English, my fingers simply don’t have the muscle memory for Afrikaans letter combinations on the new layout as I don’t type in Afrikaans often enough. So I’m constantly back-spacing and correcting typos.

      And my QWERTY typing is now completely rubbish. I actually installed a Colemak app on my wife’s laptop so I can temporarily activate it for the occasions I need to work on her machine XD

      1. Do you touch type? If yes, don’t use a keyboard cover but instead learn to touch type Colemak as well. If not, good time to learn.

        I used http://www.keybr.com to learn Colemak incrementally. I tried to get in an hour or two’s practice a day, but very quickly found myself starting to get confused with QWERTY as well, so I pretty much went cold turkey even before I knew the new layout. So I did my regular typing in Colemak, and put in extra time on drills. That’s what worked for me and a lot of other people I’ve heard of.

        Whether you go cold turkey or incrementally, though, you are going to see a drop in productivity until you master it, so I’d suggest giving your team a heads up that you’re doing this.

  1. About carpal tunnel syndrome: I’ve had it for years. I doubt different typing patterns would help. It’s the endless small motions, not the order of them. Wrist braces help. For some reason, I do better on the cheapest possible keyboard than I do on the more expensive ones. (Saves money too.) And crazy as it sounds, a homeopath I saw managed to bring it under control. Homeopathy sounds insane, and I won’t raise anybody’s blood pressure by arguing in theory why it works. All I can say is that it’s kept my carpal tunnel syndrome under control for decades now. Bizarre but true.

    1. Where the different layouts make a difference is that your hands have to move much less. With QWERTY some of the most-used keys are in awkward positions, requiring one to move your hands more to get to them. Colemak, Dvorak and Workman, the three most popular alternative layouts, place the most common keys in the home row or directly above the index and middle fingers, so most of the time your fingers only have to press down without needing to stretch to a distant letter. I actually spent today typing on QWERTY and noticed the difference – today I had to keep my hands aloft so I could reach the keys. Yesterday on Colemak I could rest my wrists on the desk while typing as my hands moved hardly at all.

      There’s not much scientific research on whether it really helps, but the anecdotal evidence is generally favourable. For me the possible increase in typing speed is the real carrot. (That, and knowing anyone trying to type on my computer will be terribly confused 😉 )

      I have no problem with homeopathy (I live in country where Sangomas (what the uninformed call witch doctors) can be members of the Health Professions Council, after all), but I am of the school of thought that believes alternative medicine which works is medicine. The reason it works can be explained and a good homeopath understands the science behind what she or he does.

  2. I know this wasn’t the main point of your post … but isn’t it simply absurd that making a choice like technical drawing would permanently damn you to inferior teachers? That is just so wrong! One of my big gripes about the South African education system was the way a “technical” education was deemed inferior to an academic education. As though technicians are by definition not very bright – which is SO not true – and damaging, too, in a country that badly needs solid technical skills. I’m often critical of things American, but one thing I truly love about this country is the absence of professional snobbery. Well, I guess some people are snobs … but Himself is a nuclear engineer, and his friends range from engineers to security guards. His sister used to clean houses and is married to a construction laborer … and they have an exceptionally beautiful home because guess what, cleaning houses and doing dirty work (although I think he was a foreman) are actually respected and pretty well paid in this country.

    1. What you say of the technical track is very true, and I was actually thinking that while writing this. Having a trade has become something with a stigma attached to it, especially among black kids. I’ve had so many conversations with children and parents about this during my time as principal, where a kid barely passing Math wanted to become a doctor or engineer.They didn’t even want to hear about doing a trade. Even when I told them a plumber or a diesel mechanic is likely to be better paid than a chartered accountant nowadays they are adamant about going to university, because that gives them status.

      And the professional snobbery – my mom is a very capable Math and Science teacher, and at this same school she was relegated to teaching the technical kids because the “better” (in their own eyes) teachers claimed teaching the smart classes as their right. And it became a vicious circle: she had students in her class who really were not capable of performing well academically (which in no way implies they were not very capable in other fields), which led to below-average results, which were used as proof that she wasn’t a good teacher and undeserving of teaching a “smart” class.

      On the one hand I can understand wanting the best teachers for your best students, but that ignores both the fact that among the technical students are also academically strong children, and more importantly, that the weaker students have a greater need of more capable teachers.

      I don’t think I believe you entirely about the absence of professional snobbery in the States. Perhaps you just know some very decent people, or perhaps it’s just a bit more subtle over there. But this is part of the human condition – we can seldom resist the urge to one-up each other and put the other down – and it’s prevalent everywhere in one form or another.

      1. Re professional snobbery … To be clear, I know a very small part of the US. Apparently over on the East Coast they are way more status-conscious than here. But we’re in a relatively small town over on the west side – but it’s an anomaly in that apparently we have more PhDs per capita here than anywhere else in the country. And while you do indeed have your social strata, they are way less clearly defined than I was used to seeing in South Africa. (Of course, my perceptions were probably influenced by the fact that I grew up believing certain work to be for “black” people, and although I personally rejected racist philosophies I couldn’t help absorbing them – so black people work was by definition inferior. It was humbling to discover that I had no idea how to do something as simple as mop a floor! And then … one of the jobs I got was driving a school bus. I had never personally known a white bus driver before then.)

      2. That this differs vastly with context is certain, and in a small community differences are often less noticeable than large cities (though the exact opposite can also be true).

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