Learning to Type

Posted on Posted in Mixed Nuts
by Mike Herchenroeder

Look at a book, any book, and what do you see? Letters. You see letters, punctuation and space. Essentially, that is what any book is, whether it be a novel, a history book, a dictionary, or a Bible. It consists of groups of letters, numbers, and punctuation marks, plus blank space separating the groups of letters. How did the letters get there? Somebody sat in front of a computer and typed them in one by one, hour after hour.

Here in Papua New Guinea we translate the Bible into a variety of languages. Frequently the initial drafts are hand written by mother tongue translators living in remote villages. Those drafts have to be typed into a computer. After the drafts are entered, they go through a series of revisions, each one requiring editing of the text. That means more typing. As an organization, we are committed to enabling the speakers of a language to take on a major portion of the work of producing a Bible in their own language. So, a few weeks ago I taught five men from the Mum language group how to type and how to use a computer, so they could type their hand written drafts into a computer and edit the text.

That sounds like a straightforward endeavor, but it was actually quite a challenge. You see, none of these guys had ever used a computer before. On occasion, they had watched other people use computers, but they had never themselves sat down in the pilot’s seat before and taken over the controls—the strange looking mouse and the 86 keys. So, I had to start at the very beginning, and teach things that veteran computer users take for granted.

First I had to teach them how to use a mouse; otherwise they wouldn’t be able to log on and start the typing software. I had to teach them that when they moved this funny object beside the keyboard, a mark on the screen, the mouse pointer, moved around. I also had to teach them that the mouse pointer may change shape from an arrow to something else like a pointing finger or an hour glass, but that’s OK. It is still the same pointer; it just looks different. (Actually it is more complicated than that, but they can only learn so much at one time.) I taught them how to click. That was very strange to them, because every time they clicked, something different happened—sometimes windows appeared, and sometimes they disappeared. Sometimes marks appeared on the screen, or something changed. Sometimes nothing happened. To these novices it was like being Alice in Wonderland. Everything was exciting and wonderful, yet, at the same time, it was very confusing and unpredictable. But they were eager students, accepting of the oddities, and determined to master these marvelous machines.

When it was time to actually teach them to type, I told them, “There are two kinds of keys on the keyboard, keys that make letters, and other keys that do other things. Don’t touch the other keys.” “Why?” “Just don’t touch them, or strange things will happen. I will teach you about some of them later.”

Typing tutor programs are wonderful inventions. Once we got past the basics, the typing program did most of the work of teaching typing, leaving me free to mill about the classroom helping them with various issues, and having a multitude of little conversations.

“When I type, only capital letters appear. What do I do?” “You pressed the Caps-Lock key. Press it again, and you can type little letters again.”

“The typing program disappeared? How can I get it back?” “Click on this little picture on the task bar, and it will come back.”

“This list appeared. Why?” “You pressed the right button on the mouse. You should only press the left button. Press the ESC key, and the list will go away.”

One of the most difficult concepts to teach is that a space is a character, just like an A or a B, but it is invisible. Occasionally while typing one of the students would accidently omit a space between two words. So he would ask me how to move the letters apart to make two words. He had tried what he considered to be logical—he clicked on the second word and pressed the right arrow key trying to make the word move to the right, but it wouldn’t go. So I explained that he needed to click between the words and press the space bar to insert a space character. “Huh?” “Just try it.” Eventually they all got it.

Probably the most difficult thing to teach them was deleting spaces. When a student accidently typed a space in the middle of a word, he would want to move the two parts of the word together.  I tried to explain that there was a space character between the two parts. To make the space go away, they needed to erase it with the back-space key. To them that was totally illogical. A space is nothing. How can you erase nothing? Eventually they learned to do it by faith, even though it didn’t make any sense to them.

Those five guys amazed me. Despite their aching fingers and the challenges of working in a Windows operating system with all of its surprises, they just kept on going. They were doggedly persistent and loved mastering these new skills. They were glued to their computers. At the end of every day, I had to virtually pry them out of their seats and make them leave, so that I could go home. At the end of eight days, they were typing Mum text, not very fast, but they were typing. On the last day they used a Bible editing program to type in real Mum Scripture text, text which included words with non-English letters like ɨ, ŋ, and ñ. I was proud of them.

When the course was over, they went back to their villages.  But in a few weeks they will return, ready to enter their precious hand written scriptures into computers.

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