Touch typing tips for French developers

Introduction

During the second covid lockdown in April 2020 in France, I was really bored. I was looking for something new to learn and I decided to practice to become a touch typist for good. As someone who spent most of its time behind a computer, I wouldn’t say I was a bad touch typist at this time but clearly I wasn’t a good one either. I never really took the time to actually learn the proper way to touch type so I had a few bad habits I wanted to get rid off.

At this time I was also deeply into vim, and the fact that I wanted to become a better touch typist was kind of related. But that’s another story that might be the subject of another post eventually.

Choosing the right layout

The first question I needed to answer was: “What kind of layout do I want to learn ?” This seems like a dumb question but actually it’s not that easy to answer. I live in France and the main layout here is ISO-AZERTY-FR and it’s not well suited for programming.

Notice how all the matching brackets but angle brackets are very far away one from another. And these useful characters: { } [ ] ~ | \ ` @ are only available by the use of the right Alt modifier: a key known as AltGr. This is already bad enough. But wait there is more.

It also has dead keys (in red on the image). Their purposes is to output accentuated characters like ê ë or È. To output â for example, you need to press the key ^ first then the key a. And for caret only, you press ^ followed by space.

On Linux it is not too bad so to speak as the dead keys are only " and ^. But on Windows it is worse, as ~ and ` are also dead keys.

It is very unfortunate that theses keys are pretty important shorcuts in vim:

  • ^: jump to the first non-blank character of the line
  • ~: switch case
  • `: jump to a mark

Compare with the QWERTY-US layout below:

Matching brackets are side by side and everything is easily reachable with the SHIFT key. This is much better for development work. One of my workmate already had made the move to QWERTY-US and he was very happy with it. If required there are plenty of ways to output accentuated characters with these kinds of layout. One of them is to use this variant for French people.

Another thing to consider, if I make the move I’ll have the wrong labels on any keyboard. Actually, it is not a problem because when you are a good touch typist you don’t need to watch your keyboard anymore. That is the whole point of it. So it is not a good deal but it might be annoying.

At the very end I decided to stick with ISO-AZERTY-FR. The main reason was that I wanted to become a good touch typist for good. And because I live in France, all the keyboards around me are in ISO-AZERTY-FR and I wanted to be able to touch type on all of them. That is unfortunate but that is the way it is. It is true that it is bad for programming. But after all, I have been able to work so far with bad touch typing habits. I can cope with weird character positions as long as I can touch type them. At some point it will end up in muscle memory and I will just forget about it.

The only thing remaining to solve is this dead key problem. Fortunately there is a layout variant without dead keys available on Linux.

$ setxkbmap fr -variant oss_nodeadkeys

On Windows, it is possible to configure autokeys to disable them.

Learn and practice touch typing

The layout chosen all I had to do is to practice touch typing. There are a lot of good websites for this.

I first used Typing Club. It is available for French ISO-AZERTY-FR. It made me learn progressively the good positions of the fingers on each rows of the keyboard. So it was a good starting point to get to learn the right position for each finger. It also made me type some French text with accentuated characters. It helps me to get rid of the bad habits that I had.

Then I typed some code on typing.io. The website proposes to type some codes taken from open source software in different programming languages. It even has some Haskell code from xmonad. I found the Perl code especially good for practicing typing special characters.

And finally, I practice on a regular basis on monkeytype. I choose the fun box ASCII. As the name suggests, it makes me type random ASCII characters. So it’s good to build up muscle memory on the whole keyboard.

Conclusion

It took me two or three weeks to learn the good positions of the fingers and a couple of months to get rid of my bad habits. I only practice five minutes a day so it doesn’t involve a lot of time.

I’m glad I now have good typing habits. I can now touch type on all the keyboard around me. It requires a minimal configuration to work with vim but I can cope with that.

Now that I’m a touch typist my wrists thank me at the end of the day and I am confident that I will never see my keyboard again !

March 15, 2021