Switching from a German to a US Keyboard Layout - Is It Worth It?

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For the first three decades of my life, I've exclusively used a German keyboard layout for programming. In 2018, I finally switched to a US layout. This post summarizes my thoughts around the topic. I was looking for a similar article before jumping the gun, but I couldn't find one — so I wrote it.

My current keyboard (as of April 2021), the low-profile, tenkeyless Keychron K1 is close to my favorite input device. Yes, I got the RGB version. &ampmdash; [Amazon referral link](https://amzn.to/3tRatjU).
My current keyboard (as of April 2021), the low-profile, tenkeyless Keychron K1 is close to my favorite input device. Yes, I got the RGB version. — Amazon referral link.

Why Switch To the US Layout?

I was reasonably efficient when writing prose, but felt like a lemur on a piano when programming: lots of finger-stretching while trying to reach the special keys like {, ;, or /.

German Keyboard Layout
German Keyboard Layout
Source: Image by Wikipedia

Here's Wikipedia's polite explanation why the German keyboard sucks for programming:

Like many other non-American keyboards, German keyboards change the right Alt key into an Alt Gr key to access a third level of key assignments. This is necessary because the umlauts and some other special characters leave no room to have all the special symbols of ASCII, needed by programmers among others, available on the first or second (shifted) levels without unduly increasing the size of the keyboard.

But Why Switch Now?

After many years of using a rubber-dome Logitech Cordless Desktop Wave, I had to get a mechanical keyboard again.

Those rubber domes just feel too mushy to me now. In addition to that, I enjoy the clicky sound of a mechanical keyboard and the noticeable tactile bump. (I'm using Cherry MX Brown Keys with O-Ring dampeners to contain the anger of my coworkers.)

Most mechanical keyboards come with an ANSI US layout only, so I figured, I'd finally make the switch.

My first mechanical keyboard &ampmdash; [Durgod Taurus K320](https://www.amazon.de/gp/product/B07QK16RDQ/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=matthiasendle-21&camp=1638&creative=6742&linkCode=as2&creativeASIN=B07QK16RDQ&linkId=fb0a782ecbc713f8266b90b941375a5f) (referral link). They also have a fancy [white-pink](https://www.amazon.de/gp/product/B081LZV2QM?ie=UTF8&tag=matthiasendle-21&camp=1638&linkCode=xm2&creativeASIN=B081LZV2QM) ISO version now.
My first mechanical keyboard — Durgod Taurus K320 (referral link). They also have a fancy white-pink ISO version now.

How Long Did It Take To Get Accustomed To The New Layout?

Working as a Software Engineer, my biggest fear was, that the switch would slow down my daily work. This turned out not to be true. I was reasonably productive from day one, and nobody even noticed any difference. (That's a good thing, right?)

At first, I didn't like the bar-shaped US-Return key. I preferred the European layout with a vertical enter key. I was afraid that I would hit the key by accident. After a while, I find that the US return key to be even more convenient. I never hit it by accident, and it's easy to reach with my pinky from the home position.

Within two weeks, I was back to 100% typing speed.

Did My Programming Speed Improve Noticeably?

Yup. I'd say I can type programs about 30% faster now.

Especially when using special characters (/, ;, {, and so on) I'm much faster now; partly because the key locations feel more intuitive, but mainly because my fingers stay at their dedicated positions now.

Somehow the position of special characters feels just right. I can now understand the reason why Vim is using / for search or why the pipe symbol is |: both are easy to reach! It all makes sense now! (For a fun time, try that on a German keyboard!)

I now understand why Mircosoft chose \ as a directory separator: it's easily accessible from a US keyboard. On the German layout, it's… just… awful (Alt Gr+ß on Windows, Shift + Option + 7 on Mac).

The opening curly brace on a German layout Mac is produced with Alt+8, which always made me leave the home row and break my typing flow. Now there are dedicated keys for parentheses. Such a relief!

Update: It also helps greatly when looking up hotkeys for IDEs, text editors, photo editors, etc. because some programs remap shortcuts for the German market, which means that all the English documentation is totally worthless. Now I can just use the shortcuts mentioned and move on with my life.

Am I Slower When Writing German Texts Now?

In the beginning, I was.

Somehow my brain associated the German layout with German texts. First, I used the macOS layout switcher. This turned out to be cumbersome and take time.

Then I found the "US with Umlauts via Option Key Layout". It works perfectly fine for me. It allows me to use a single Keyboard layout but insert German umlauts at will (e.g. ö is Option+o). There is probably a similar layout for other language combinations.

Stefan Imhoff notified me that there's also a Karabiner rule which does the same. Might come in handy in case you already use this tool.

Is Switching Between Keyboards Painful?

US keyboard layout
US keyboard layout
Source: Wikipedia

My built-in MacBook Pro keyboard layout is still German. I was afraid, that switching between the internal German and the external English keyboard would confuse me. This turned out not to be a problem. I rarely look at the print anyway. (Update: can't remember when I last looked at the print.)

How Often Do You Switch Back To A German Layout Now?

Never. My Girlfriend has a German keyboard and ever time I have to use it, I switch to the US layout. It makes her very happy when I do this and forget to switch back to German when I'm done.


If you consider switching, just do it! I don't look back at all and apart from the initial transition period, I still couldn't find any downsides.

Since posting this article, many of my friends made the switch as well and had similar experiences:

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    Thanks to Simon Brüggen for reviewing drafts of this article.