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Learn a Language, but Not a Human One

17 July 2017

From The Wall Street Journal:

Donald Trump, whose wife speaks five languages, just wrapped up a pair of trips to Europe during which he spoke only English. Good for him. If Mr. Trump studied a language in college or high school, as most of us were required to, it was a complete waste of his time. I took five years of French and can’t even talk to a French poodle.

Maybe there’s a better way for students to spend their time. Last month Apple CEO Tim Cook urged the president: “Coding should be a requirement in every public school.” I propose we do a swap.

Why do American schools still require foreign languages? Translating at the United Nations is not a growth industry. In the 1960s and ’70s everyone suggested studying German, as most scientific papers were in that language. Or at least that’s what they told me. In the ’80s it was Japanese, since they ruled manufacturing and would soon rule computers. In the ’90s a fountain of wealth was supposed to spout from post-Communist Moscow, so we all needed to learn Russian. Now parents elbow each other getting their children into immersive Mandarin programs starting in kindergarten.

Don’t they know that the Tower of Babel has been torn down? On your average smartphone, apps like Google Translate can do real-time voice translation. No one ever has to say worthless phrases like la plume de ma tante anymore. The app Waygo lets you point your phone at signs in Chinese, Japanese or Korean and get translations in English. Sometime in the next few years you’ll be able to buy a Bluetooth-based universal translator for your ear.

Yet students still need to take at least two years of foreign-language classes in high school to attend most four-year colleges. Three if they want to impress the admissions officer. Four if they’re masochists. Then they need to show language competency to graduate most liberal-arts programs.

. . . .

The U.S. is falling behind. In 2014 England made computing a part of its national primary curriculum. Estonia had already started coding in its schools as early as first grade. The Netherlands, Belgium and Finland also have national programs.

Maybe the U.S. can start the ball rolling by requiring colleges and high schools to allow computer languages to count as foreign languages. A handful of high schools already teach the Java computer language using a free tool called BlueJ. Nonprofit Code.org exposes students to a visual programming language called Blockly. To compete in this dog-eat-dog world, America should offer Python and Ruby on Rails instead of French and Spanish.

Knowledge is good. Great literature reshuffles the mind. Tough trigonometry problems provide puzzles for the brain. Yet there is no better challenge than writing code that teaches a machine to do exactly what you want.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

PG studied some Latin both before and during college and enjoyed it. He thinks the experience made him more deft with English. If science manages to reanimate a very old Roman, PG is prepared.

In ages past, PG also wrote a computer program – for divorce lawyers. He called it Splitsville. It sold well among those in its small target market.

PG has to admit he liked the Splitsville experience more than Latin. The exercise of writing the program increased his fluency in the language spoken and written by divorce lawyers and the syntax and structure of their legal docouments.

However, the arcane document assembly language/system in which Splitsville was written has long since disappeared, which raises another issue.

The fundamental manner of structuring knowledge and breaking it down into a form perceptible to a computer is a skill that lurks somewhere in PG’s shrinking brain, but he would have to learn another computer language to write a program for divorce lawyers today. That task is probably not as difficult as Latin, but it’s more than a Diet Coke-fueled afternoon.

When PG was in college, his computer science friends were quite skilled in Fortran. Other college friends were fluent in German.

As far as PG knows, German has not become obsolete and is still in regular use. Fortran, not so much.

PG is not opposed to students learning to program in current computer languages and skipping French, but is skeptical about the idea that Java expertise learned in high school will benefit them through very much of their occupational lives.

But he could be wrong.

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30 Comments to “Learn a Language, but Not a Human One”

  1. I took French and Spanish, but was terrible at both. Having said that, I am sure I would be quadruple-terrible at coding. I love the name of your divorce program, PG.

  2. As someone who brushed seven languages and speaks none too well, I think learning a foreign language is beneficial. It expanded my mind and my ability to create alien names for my sci-fi books. The short coming of learning a foreign language is the class room. It becomes an abstract language just like coding, except with coding you don’t have to speak it. I studied seven years of French and three years of German and I have difficulties with both. I learned Italian in 10 months while living there, and English in my first three months in New York. I can even manage street Spanish by visiting Tijuana, when it was safe. And the more languages you speak the easier it is to learn new ones.

  3. FORTRAN is still in regular use; programs I wrote in it for plasma physics research are still used 30 years later. At ITER, I am reliably informed. I don’t know how much new programming is done in it.

    My French is still reasonable, and Spanish is my second native language, but I no longer code much at all.

    And I don’t program in FORTRAN much. But I did love writing code.

  4. Computer programming can help teach you to be very exact in your wording because a computer will only do what you tell it to do – exactly as you tell it to do it. (Having done some programming for older systems and some of the newer micro-controllers, I’ve seen skipping/missing or miss-ordered steps cause all sorts of ‘interesting’ messes. 😉 )

    • My coding experience is minimal, but I found that the formal logic I learned as a philosophy student came in rather handy because it taught me to think in a certain way.
      Learning languages not your own does exactly the same thing because no two languages can ever be translated word for word. So learning even a little French or German or Japanese improves the brain’s capacity to recognize similarities between cultures as well as differences.
      I’m more or less bilingual in English and Hungarian with a reasonable grasp of French, a smattering of German and a hint of Japanese. Along the way, I learned a little about why each language works the way it does. Google translate [shudder] can never do that.
      Perhaps the question should be ‘why aren’t our students being taught both?’ A good education is more about making the brain flexible and capable of further learning than it is about learning useful ‘facts’.

  5. Well, I learned Japanese about thirty years ago and still speak it reasonably well. I also know about fourteen computer languages. FORTRAN is still the language of choice for a lot of scientific programming. I remember reading about a new version of it a couple of years ago that emphasizes parallel execution and other features of great interest to numerical programming types.


  6. Я еще говорю по-русски.

  7. a large part of learning to program computers is not in the particular language learned, but rather in the knowlege of how computers actually operate, and the fact that they are not magic/smart “do something” boxes, but instead very stupid machines that follow simple instructions fast.

    This helps set/change the expectations of what computers should be able to do and not do.

    additional arguments can be made about the value of learning the logical thinking that programming requires, but even if people don’t like thinking that way, understanding that the people who do live and breath computers think that way is valuable.

    • Very little of it, in fact. People who understand computers can normally pick up a new language in a few weeks or less. People who understand one computer language and nothing about how computers work will take a lot longer.

      I’m not sure I’d say this is a bad idea, but I’m not convinced that it’s a good one. Particularly as programming itself is being replaced with neural networks in so many areas. And, where it’s not, people typically spend more time hooking together open-source libraries to do what they want rather than writing lots of new code.

      • neural networks still need programming to implement them. And even if all you are doing is chaining together library calls, it still takes understanding the concepts and limitations of computers

  8. Captain Kirk only needed one language: the language of love.

  9. Trump graduated before the foreign language craze hit and became a hard requirement. I got by before it became as big a requirement as it is now (IIRC I had one semester or at most one year of Spanish, and it did me no good whatsoever)

    On the other hand, I’ve picked up dozens of programming languages and have been known to go in and edit a program without knowing what language it was written in.

    • I don’t think that’s true. I was born the same year as Donald Trump and grew up in New York. We were required to take a foreign language in high school. There was also an experimental program where some elementary school students were put in a separate Spanish class. I wasn’t. They put me in the high school chemistry class (I took the NYS Regents exam at the end of sixth grade–and passed.) Now that I live in Tucson, I wish I’d learned Spanish.

  10. I’m not against the concept of teaching coding in schools. My one problem with the whole ‘everyone should learn to code’ concept is that coding is not just a language skill. The act of writing and designing code is a mindset. Much like those doing software quality control have a different mindset than the coder. It takes specific ways of thinking, it’s not just knowing the words.
    Maybe more than the actual coding, teach them how to think logically and with structure which is beneficial to coding and the rest of life.
    Not everyone can think that way nor should they because, well, we’re not Borg.
    I’m a person who is an author, speaks 3 languages and also knows how to code and do QA. I know a lot of authors and linguists but not all of them can make their heads wrap around the logic of code; I also know a lot of coders who can’t wrap their head around a QA mindset.
    I’m better at QA than coding so my mindset isn’t completely right for coding.
    Diversity is the spice of life, if everyone codes, we all start looking the same.

    • Edmund makes the point I thought of. I an fluent in English (US) and German. I studied Latin for four years, Spanish for three. I also studied computer language and programming. Human languages took, coding did not. My thinking system is not linear enough for me to adapt to the approaches needed to code at anything past absolute basic, well BASIC. If I had to do that to graduate high school or college, I probably would not have succeeded.

    • “…teach them how to think logically and with structure which is beneficial to coding and the rest of life.”

  11. I am fluent in several coding languages myself – but only the one human language. I do have bits and pieces of several, though.

    The OP misses (at least in the excerpted bits) one very key advantage to knowing the language, or even some of it, of the people you are dealing with.

    You are in a great position of advantage if you know their language – and they do not know that you know it. It is amazing the things that you can learn in “side conversations” that they are quite sure you do not understand.

  12. I’m amazed the Wall Street Journal is pushing language ignorance. It’s essential to understand the language (even if you’re not fluent in it) if you’re managing a business that relies on workers speaking that language: I know a restaurant that just turned into a cash-scam festival ripping off the Chinese owner by English and Spanish-speaking staff. In terms of business negotiations and partnerships, anything an American can do to look less of a rube is very helpful.

    Foreign language study raises both math and English-language skills. I took Latin and German in high school, Hebrew in college, and enjoy subtitled foreign films (Mandirin Chinese historical tv dramas right now.)

  13. If they are going to teach a second language, it should be during the elementary school years when brains are little language sponges. They’re learning how sentences are formed, parts of speech in elementary, so the contrast of how sentences are formed in another should reinforce grammatical structures. Good thing. When they are older, in middle school, let them learn to code. If they enjoyed the language they learned earlier, they can keep practicing on their own or join a language club.

  14. I’m bilingual German/English, althrough I reached that level of English by teaching myself, mostly. School certainly didn’t. I also studied Latin and Ancient Greek in school, and Spanish in university.

    And I feel that knowing so many differnt languages is very beneficial. The mindset is not the same at all in each language, and even the structure forces different ways of thinking. Ancient Greek is much more like German than Latin, for example, even though it’s not more closely related. But Greek uses articles like German while Latin does not.

    I personally believe that both teaching one or more foreign languages as well as coding in school would be beneficial, in more ways than just the obvious knowledge: They teach an openness of mind, a willingness to look at and possibly adapt to other mindsets and ways of thinking, as well as logic.

    Relying on English only to get around the world is not a good idea. This world is much richer than one single language, and it’s so easy to enter that particular abundance by opening up to other languages.

  15. Who is this arrogant person who thinks the average person will have any more use for Java studied in high school than they will for having studied Mandarin once they reach age 40? In fact, with the advent of Alexa/Siri/Google Assistant, I’d say most people will have less need to learn how to program a computer themselves.

    I took Latin and French in high school, and while I no longer remember enough of either to read or speak them, the study of both enriched my understanding of English. They also exposed me not only to the language, but the literature and culture of other people.

  16. So does this mean the WSJ thinks computers invented computer languages?

  17. I love these regular prophesies that learning a foreign language has become obsolete — perhaps it will lead to less competition on the translation market.

    OTOH — there isn’t much competition to start with. My husband and I are booked solid months in advance with translation jobs (German / English).

    Anyone with even an inkling of the complexity of language knows that Google Translate is maybe just barely good enough to get you from one corner to the other.

    Since I’m not versed in computer languages, I’m not sure how far C++ will get you.

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