In high school I made a random choice that changed my life: I took a typing class. At the time it seemed like a backup plan. I had no desire to become a secretary, and in those days, typing was almost exclusively the role of admin staff. Still, I loved to write and dreamed of doing it on a typewriter – maybe one day even a Selectric.

So I learned to touch type, an incredibly liberating skill that means you don’t need to look at the keys to know what you’re typing. As technology evolved through electric typewriters to word processors and the computer keyboard, I continued to enjoy my ability to whip off words at lightning speed compared to colleagues who had to hunt and peck for the keys.

Until I moved to France. And discovered the horrors of the AZERTY keyboard.

AZERTY describes the top line of keys on a typewriter or keyboard. In the English world we use QWERTY. Germans use QWERTZ. But it doesn’t stop at the top line. A whole lot of things like the period key (full stop), numbers and essential letters (notably, the ‘m’) are not where they’re supposed to be.

The first time I showed up for work in France and discovered I was expected to type on an AZERTY keyboard, my heart fell. How could I possibly do a decent job if I was spending the entire day looking for the comma? Certain signs were unfindable, and accents I had no use for in English kept dropping in for unwanted visits.

Finally I became somewhat functional in AZERTY, meaning that in a pinch I could navigate around to find the essential keys without wasting too much time. Then I went to work in the German-speaking world and had to do it all over again on QWERTZ, which while seemingly closer was far worse, perhaps because of the confused state of my brain at that point.

Eventually technology evolved again and it became a relatively quick  fix to change the keyboard configuration in software. This saved my soul but became the bane of any IT guy who stopped by to work on my computer. Those guys never know how to touch type, and it drove them crazy that the keys did not match the hardware.

There has been talk recently in the French-speaking world of changing the AZERTY keyboard, which is not particularly efficient for rapid touch typing. At first I thought this meant aligning it with QWERTY, but no. Quelle idée! Rather, optimizing it to accommodate commonly used things like the ‘@’ sign.

I have no idea how keyboards in Asian languages work. Typing for non-natives must be a nightmare. Maybe some smart techie type could invent a virtual keyboard that is just a hologram of sorts. Users’ choice of how they want to configure that.

My preferred keyboard is the Canadian CSA version of QWERTY, which also offers all of the accents needed to type proper French.

Do you touch type or use the hunt-and-peck method?


  1. francetaste · March 23, 2017

    When I was signing up for classes in high school, my counselor pressed me to take typing, saying that since I was a good student, such a skill would help me get a job as a secretary. I informed him that I was not going to be a secretary but a boss who would have a secretary. My mother, who was there, was horrified and I got in lots of trouble afterward for being uppity. (I did become a boss and I did have a secretary–who was a man.) All the same, the next year, I took a typing class during the summer, just to have the skill. I soon got a an after-school job at a bank, typing in address changes and programming punch cards and earning double the minimum wage–not bad at age 16. Now, I routinely type as fast as people talk, necessary in my line of work.
    All done on qwerty and in English. I am lost on azerty.

    • MELewis · March 23, 2017

      Lol, Uppity? Probably why you got to be a boss with a male secretary! I encountered similar advice from my parents. Dad: “Typing? Only secretaries type!” Mom: “You should learn anyway, you just never know!” When I first started working in advertising, it was a real advantage to be able to type your own documents. In France, it got me initially into an admin role that opened many doors. Azerty be damned – where there’s a will, and if I may say, a woman. 😉

      • francetaste · March 23, 2017

        Oh, my parents were of the “you can be anything you want to be, as long as it’s a wife and stay-at-home mom” variety. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a stay-at-home mom; it just didn’t interest me. I wanted to see the world.

  2. emilycommander · March 23, 2017

    Ha! Yes, I sometimes work in an office, and I usually have to logon several times before I remember to change the keyboard to QWERTY. Goodness knows what my daughters are going to do as they are learning to use computers on both sorts. I had not realised that there was some thought being given to changing the French keyboard, but how typical that this would not involve aligning with QWERTY. ARGHARGHARGH.

    • MELewis · March 23, 2017

      My kids adapt to either as neither officially learned to type….besides, nowadays they all work on their own devices and configure them in a flash. By the time your daughters are there, it may be all be simplified to a matter of thought transfer (well, we can dream…)

    • phildange · March 23, 2017

      If they change the keyboard it will be to make it more efficient, and also to include new signs that were not used before . It won’t be to adapt to a foreign language, which is from the start rather counterproductive, as I noted in an answer to Mel thereafter .

  3. Osyth · March 23, 2017

    I can type up a storm on any machine from a manual typewriter (my mother still has one) to my funky little Bluetooth iPad keyboard which makes me feel as though I am become Gulliver in Lilliput and gives me giant hands. I was sent to finishing school where Mrs Chittenden taught us Pitman Shorthand and Mrs Monnaseh taught us typing – we had to type to the beat of her stick on the front desk. We also learned to essential skills of young ladydom like how to get out of a sports car without flashing our knickers or stocking tops. It was not my choice, it was an expectation but the typing (and indeed the shorthand) have stood me in good stead ever since. On a QWERTY. Here in France, I am the typing equivalent of tongue-tied whenever required to use a French keyboard (I do a little work at the library from time to time …. I’m learning to swear silently and beautifully in my head). My mother, incidentally, still sends me beautifully typed letters with zero errors. I keep them all.

    • MELewis · March 23, 2017

      That keyboard sounds magic! Finishing school makes me smile, not just because of your atypical path since but also because in French the expression that someone is ‘pas tout à fait fini’ means something quite different! 😉 Sounds like you picked up some pretty essential life skills there. I am envious of the shorthand – and those letters from your mother. Treasures I’m sure.

      • Osyth · March 23, 2017

        I know what it means in French 😉 the keyboard is superb .. bought it in the States and I highly recommend it. I can’t remember the make (but not Apple). Shorthand is a much underrated skill and mother’s letters are indeed treasures. I was the worst EVER student at that place but ironically they invited me back some years later to talk to the girls about being successful. I hooted! xx

      • francetaste · March 23, 2017

        Zagg? I have one of those. Lifesaver.

      • Osyth · March 23, 2017

        No it’s a Logitech – it’s a cover which opens into a keyboard and enables the tablet to stand up. I have to say I wondered why you were saying ‘zagg’ to me …. hoped it wasn’t an insult 😂😂

      • francetaste · March 23, 2017

        Chuckling…my Zagg is the same–hard shell that opens into a stand for the tablet. Turns it into a mini-laptop.

  4. Rosie · March 23, 2017

    I can totally relate to this – I can type fairly quickly (with relatively few glances down at the keyboard) on a standard UK QWERTY keyboard, but stick a French AZERTY in front of me and I’m hopeless! At the start of the year, I had so many problems just locating the keys needed to type my username and password to log on!! Though on the other hand, my students have just as many problems using my QWERTY keyboard.

    • MELewis · March 23, 2017

      I know the feeling – often felt like such a dumb cluck those first few days on the job. But as you say, the students have their own issues. I found my French coworkers were very tolerant of my difficulties, perhaps as I saved their English on many occasions!

      • Rosie · March 23, 2017

        It swings on roundabouts, as they say!

  5. M. L. Kappa · March 23, 2017

    I learned to touch type in high school too. My 18th birthday present was a portable Olivetti typewriter – I was delighted and typed my uni papers on it, using carbon paper and white corrector. That’s how old I am. 😋 So thankful for computers and spell check. But I’ve forgotten some of my touch typing – I do half and half!

    • MELewis · March 23, 2017

      I think we can probably share the golden oldies award. I also remember typing some papers on my Mom’s old portable. Nothing as classy as Olivetti, though. Great machine!

  6. Suzanne et Pierre · March 23, 2017

    I had to smile while reading your post. I also took typing while in high school (on a manual typewriter…it does age me!) I can now type quite fast on a QWERTY keyboard without looking at the keys and it has been very helpful in my career. I am also totally lost on a AZERTY keyboard. Once I visited a friend who worked in Lyon and I sat at her desk to send a message and forgot about the different placement of the keys and typed a storm without looking. Only when I started reviewing the message did I realized that I had typed gibberish…we had a good laugh at it.

    • MELewis · March 23, 2017

      Funny story! Our brains are hard wired to certain skills and such things wreak havoc with our habits. I have certainly talked gibberish many times while attempting to speak French in my ‘English’ way. 😉

  7. Katherine Wikoff · March 23, 2017

    Fascinating! I never knew, or even thought to consider, that keyboards would be so different in countries that use the same alphabet as English.

    • MELewis · March 23, 2017

      Nor would I, had I not had to wrap my brain – and fingers – around them. It’s insane! However, there is supposed to be a method to their madness, ie that the letter ‘q’ while not used often in English is actually very common in French.

      • phildange · March 23, 2017

        The position of letters on the keyboard was determined from the statistical use of each letter and the frequency of its occurrences in conjunction with definite other letters, all this considering the utilisation of each finger by a professional typist . Of course, this setting is only accurate for one language . So yes, there was a very serious logic in that, you can trust French engineers in this sort of things .

  8. poshbirdy · March 23, 2017

    My mum tried to get me to learn as a child but I didn’t have the discipline. Then at 89 she told me yesterday that she has just bought a ‘new’ typewriter and is going to start sending letters again. I am not convinced…

    • MELewis · March 23, 2017

      I love that! Letter writing is under-rated and if she can pull it off on a typewriter at 89, she is some feisty lady. I would never have learned to type if it hadn’t been a credit course in high school. You just had to show up and pay attention, which even I was able to do. 😉

  9. Britt · March 23, 2017

    I got all anxious just THINKING about a non-QWERTY keyboard! EEEK!

    • MELewis · March 24, 2017

      Like life and languages aren’t complicated enough on their own, right? I thought it was a bad joke when I first discovered the difference. Eeek is right!

  10. coteetcampagne · March 23, 2017

    I type fast, but tend to transpose letters and even words and on proof reading it is generally quite hilarious.
    What’s worse is when I’m tired and I don’t check it and send complete gobbledegook to some poor sod.
    It’s a physical manifestation of my dysphasia which in my case mucks up and mixes my word stream, something I have learned to mostly manage.
    At school they managed it by wacking me on the back of the head with a bendy cane.
    (Another time, another place)

    • MELewis · March 24, 2017

      Oh, dear. Lucky you didn’t end up with an aversion to writing completely! I don’t have any excuse other than age which seems to result in way more typos and mistakes than I ever used to make. But hey, the internet is forgiving.

      • coteetcampagne · March 24, 2017

        Writing down is fine, as long as I don’t speed along. Its only when I try to match my train of thought and my typing that it tends to derail.

  11. phildange · March 23, 2017

    I hope everyone can imagine the difficulty is the same the other way round . And what about Arabs or Japanese ( or Pharaonic Egyptians :wink:) ? It always seem as though Anglophones are more totally ressourceless when confronted to other languages than everyone else in the world . But we know it’s a question of feeling, and will . I remember when I learnt the piano I had to learn how to read musical notes . For the piano you need to be able to read in two keys, the treble clef, G, and the bass clef, F . It was a hard task to be able to read fluently in the first clef, and then I had to start again from zero for another writing, another language ! Oh the confusion in my boiling brain . And that’s it, a special work everybody in the world does for different reasons, except Anglophones for languages … Why, Lord Why ? … Ha ha

    • MELewis · March 24, 2017

      Pity us poor anglos, Phil, you know wehave a huge sense of entitlement! 😉 The world is meant to adapt to us and not the other way around. Your brain confusion in learning your musical clefs sounds like mine when first confronted with AZERTY!

  12. chezperrier · March 23, 2017

    Thank goodness my mom advised me to take a typing class, as it’s helped me over the years many times. However, I remember trying to email my friends and family when I was in Brazil, and it seemed to take forever because the keyboard was so different! So far, whenever I’m in France, I have my own laptop, so it hasn’t been an issue. I would definitely have to learn all over again!

    • MELewis · March 24, 2017

      That’s interesting, what kind of keyboard do they use in Brazil? I’m afraid my knowledge of Portuguese in very poor, is it a Latin language like French and Spanish?

      • chezperrier · March 24, 2017

        Portuguese is a Latin language, and from what I’m told, Brazilians can understand Spanish, but Spanish speakers cannot understand Portuguese because there are more sounds. I favor the Brazilian Portuguese over the one from Portugal, as I think it’s softer and more sensual sounding. Anyway, I took a look at the Brazilian keyboard, and it looks like they use QWERTY, which doesn’t seem so very different; however, I recall typing and having weird accents suddenly appear. I would have to backtrack and find a way to type it correctly.

  13. Colin Bisset · March 23, 2017

    In the old days, travelling through France I’d check emails, etc at an internet cafe. Not being able to find the @ almost reduced me to tears…Bravo for being not only multi-lingual but a multi-keyboardiste!

    • MELewis · March 24, 2017

      And bravo to you, Colin, for admitting to feeling frustrated to tears (which is usually where I end up). Grrr, finding that @ sign!

  14. Lisa @ cheergerm · March 24, 2017

    Like you, I learnt touch typing in my early high school years. At first I was like, what am I doing this for? However, it’s a skill that has held me in good stead in so many different ways.

    • MELewis · March 24, 2017

      It is such a useful skill to have! I wonder, do kids even get a chance to learn typing these days? In my books such things should be a mandatory part of our education – along with driver education and CPR.

  15. Dana · March 26, 2017

    I am with you in saying that typing was the most useful class I took in high school. I am forever grateful. My friends thought I was lame but look at me typing now! hahaha. I will never stray from my QWERTY. I’ve gotten used to AZERTY but habits are hard to break 😉

    • MELewis · March 26, 2017

      Amazing that such a basic skill is still so helpful in the digital age – and such a shame that it is not taught to all!

      • phildange · March 26, 2017

        Keep cool . In the next decades we’d better remember how to dig the ground with our claws …

      • deborahrn55 · June 4, 2017

        I had similar experience, however, by the time I needed my typing skills…I’d forgotten them. I graduated from high school in 1973 and entered nursing school in 1974. Computers were not readily accessible to hospitals back then. Gosh, that makes me sound historical. If only my 31 year old daughter could hear me…she’d be the first to remind me that age is a state of mind. My daughter is my best critic. Having a daughter is like having a mini version of yourself, except smarter. Yes, I admit this to be true…sometimes. But, this is where she’d disagree…she would say “all the time mama.” 😱😍🙇Decades you say…I don’t think it’s going to take that long.

  16. midihideaways · March 27, 2017

    I was a ‘hunt and peck’ typist until I took a touch type class when I was 14 or 15 – a long time ago! I didn’t use the skill much though, this was in the days long before computers came to live in every home, and I didn’t have many occasions to use my typewriter, all school homework was done by hand! :). But later on I discovered an MS Dos program called Typing Tutor, and brushed up on my skills, and learnt to use the numeric keypad, which was great for my stint in the accounts department! I’ve never gotten to be fluent on an AZERTY keyboard, but can switch between a QWERTY and QUERTZ layout – useful sometimes…

    • MELewis · March 28, 2017

      Yes, I think it’s not just useful but probably good for your brain to be able to switch things up from time to time! Not a numbers person, so have to look at the top row of the keyboard – but that must’ve made your life easier in accounts.

      • midihideaways · March 29, 2017

        Being able to use a calculator without having to look was almost as liberating as touch-typing!! 🙂 And it saved hours! It’s interesting that there is a variation between US and UK keyboards, in where the @ and ” symbols are located – I’m still re-training my brain on that!!

  17. Mél@nie · April 2, 2017

    @”My preferred keyboard is the Canadian CSA version of QWERTY, which also offers all of the accents needed to type proper French.” – QED… 🙂 I’ve had a French keyboard for years, as I’m really “obsessed”(LOL!) with correct spelling and French accents… eh oui, déformation professionnelle “oblige”!!! 😀

  18. Linda Grashoff · April 13, 2017

    I touch type but become quite frustrated when taking my German and French lessons at Duolingo if I opt for timed practice. Switching to the accented letters on the lesson page takes so much time. I have often wondered if the timed practices were devised by native writers with differently configured keyboards. Thanks for—perhaps—confirming my suspicion.

    • MELewis · April 13, 2017

      Very happy to have provided confirmation. It is indeed frustrating!

  19. glyfoboard · May 17, 2017

    there must be a way to standardize the keyboard letter layout for all cultures and languages around the world. but who gets to decide what alphabet sequence the world uses? the Americans who invented the computer? I may have a remedy to this.

    • MELewis · May 18, 2017

      If you have any ideas, please share them with the world!

  20. Jordan kengne · September 17, 2020

    Thanks do much for sharing your experience I will use the same keyboard as you as the Canadian csc keyboard has the French accents. Because of my work I am forced to switch between french and English

    • MELewis · September 17, 2020

      It was such a lightbulb moment for me that I had to share. Such a time-saver! Glad it helps you too.

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