World Languages Vs. Programming Languages

ThinkstockPhotos-177809840Some states have proposed and passed legislation introducing coding into school curriculum. This past May, Arkansas passed a comprehensive law requiring all public and charter schools to offer computer science courses and New Mexico and Kentucky have proposed similar legislation. However, a newly proposed policy in Florida appears to be the first that would allow languages to be fully replaced with coding. A survey by Oraco Technology in the U.K. announced that Python overtook French as the most popular language learned in primary schools and that six out of ten parents would rather have their children learn to program than learn French. The description of both subjects as languages is suggestive of an academic overlap. However, while programming and linguistics do share certain aspects, as Amy Hirotka from says, “We still believe [coding] is fundamentally different than a world language.”

“Obviously, if you can have computer language skills, you can communicate with people all over the world,” explained State Senator Jeremy Ring, a Democrat who made his fortune as a Yahoo executive and is for Florida’s Senate Bill 468. “Technology is the great equalizer.” Programming languages may be loosely dubbed “languages” based on their underlying structures of vocabulary and syntax, but much to Senator Ring’s chagrin, coding will only assist in communication with a machine, while a world language will teach one to communicate with people irl. A programming language can technically be called a language, albeit a constructed language and not a natural language, in that it is created to communicate information from one entity to another. Still, this means that programming by definition is not a foreign or world language and shouldn’t be treated as one.

Erin McCormick from Middlebury Interactive reflected on her education experiences, revealing that early exposure to programming did give her the confidence and practice in a structured approach to abstractions that later helped her language learning abilities. Her conclusion however, was not to bunch the two subjects together; “Instead of debating which is more beneficial for our students, why can’t we recognize the value of both coding and world languages as important 21st Century skills and the unique opportunities they each create?” Similarly, Fabiola Santiago wrote for the Miami Harold; “Surely high schools should offer computer science courses (fund them!), but not at the expense of another valuable subject that is just as important in today’s competitive job market.” The U.S. is currently facing a shortage of bilingual teachers, as well as a shortage in technical talent, and both subjects need to be incorporated into U.S. curriculum.

#edtech #coding #language

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  1. As a geek with some experience in establishing standards (SQL) for a programming language, I agree they are fundamentally different from natural languages. It is a tool for a different job.

    But programming languages also fall into different families; functional and declarative languages (tell the machine what you want) versus procedural languages (tell the machine how to do the job, step by step). Then there are interfaces that involve drawing stuff on a screen (Chinese vs alphabet vs syllabary?)

    I would like to see a course in linguistics added as a substitution for a foreign language. This will let the student move around in both worlds. They would understand formal grammars (“SQL is an LALR(1) parser”, “Chomsky grammars are ..”, etc )
    and linguistics (“Czech is a Southern Slavic language” , “Esperanto is an agglutinate language” , etc.)

    If they want to learn a human language or a computer language, then they would have high level, abstract mind tools. And if they not want learn either, they still have high level, abstract mind tools :)

  2. First and foremost is that world languages provide the student live speaking, listening, and cultural aspects of other peoples and countries. It is human to human interaction.

    Machine to machine should NEVER replace the valuable skills of knowing other peoples and countries. I could not envision world leaders speaking only with computers.

    Coding is coding and should not be confused with world languages. We need our students to speak other foreign languages, learn other cultures and peoples to achieve true tolerance and world peace. I am saddened by some politicians and states who do not speak and understand foreign languages and look to replace the valuable skills our students achieve with coding.

    We will need human language as long as humans exist. Trying to replace humans with computers will only isolate humans more than they already are with their tech gadgets.

  3. I’m a computer programmer by trade and learnt Spanish as a 2nd language (Infact my business utilises both these skills on a daily basis)

    Unfortunately there aren’t many similarities or skills that can be carried over between the two. They are completely different subjects, learning to conjugate verbs and apply patterns does have some comparable thought processes but for me the biggest difference is that human languages are inherently social with the purpose to communicate with other humans who are a lot more forgiving that computers in the sense that with computer languages its is either understood or not there is little margin for error, its also a very lonesome activity with a large portion spent on planing, debugging and logic rather than simply writing code.

    In terms of value, for Non-English Speakers I think without a doubt English would be more important to learn, compared to coding. Infact for most programming languages a good level of English is a prerequisite in order to be able to access the resources to effectively learn the language (yes all major computer languages are translated into most common human languages) but in terms of resources, help, online communities the large majority is all in English. Its surprising how much of the internet is just in English

  4. I’m yet another programmer who can chime in on the fundamental dissimilarity between programming languages and human languages. All they have in common is that they both have syntactical rules— albeit very different ones.

    It would not be surprising in the least to learn that they are processed in entirely different parts of the brain. I can’t write e-mails or papers with music on or people taking, but these can actually be helpful while programming— programming feels like a linguistic vacuum.

    Tellingly, I found this article while searching for something I heard over lunch: that a programming language had been given a spoken form, so that programmers can actually write code with sounds coming from their mouths. This is so unusual— probably has never happened before— that I’m curious to find out what it’s like (probably no curly brackets). Human languages are the exact opposite— they almost always have a spoken component, but only some in the last five thousand years have had written forms.

  5. “coding will only assist in communication with a machine”

    That statement is wrong, most Programmers agree that “Programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute.” — Harold Abelson

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