Since the dawn of the computer age, the debate has rumbled between computer programmers and non-programmers alike. Is a computer based language a foreign language? Two Washington state legislators think so, by recently introducing a bill that would allow computer science classes to count toward foreign language requirements.
“I hesitate to say that programming should count as a foreign language.” Computer programmer, Michael Cluck, a polyglot of computer programming languages, said. “Learning to program requires very much the same thought processes and, just like spoken language, you have to learn an entire set of rules, words, and structures.”
That’s because humans have to speak to the computer, rather than a person. Often times, it takes months, even years, to become “native” in a computer language, just like when learning a spoken language.
“The harder [it] is for a human to read, the easier it is for a computer to use.” Cluck said. “That’s because humans don’t think like computers do. The lowest human-readable language you’ll find is Assembly. You can’t just say add X and Y together. You have to say load in X, load in Y, add those two together and store the result in Z.”
An example of how to add two numbers together in Assembly, goes as followed:
LDR R1, X
LDR R2, Y
ADD R1, R2
STR R1, Z
“But learning a programming language only allows you to communicate with other programmers; learning to speak another language allows you to speak to all kinds of people.” Cluck said.
Patrick Cox, an editor on PRI’s The World, and the host of The World in Words podcast, thought passing the bill is just another way for politicians to get around the foreign language requirement.
“It’s an indication of the low value that many American politicians—and unfortunately, educators—place on foreign language learning. No linguist I know of buys the argument that a computer programming language is even close to a natural language and should be treated as such.” Cox wrote to Ars Technica.
Language is a brain activity. If a language is lost in youth, it can be brought back easily by reusing the same connections made in the brain before the language is lost. If a language is learned as an elder, it can help prevent Alzheimer. Just the act of learning a language can encourage growth and understanding in the brain. If a student learns a language, who’s to say the language connections made won’t help later in life?
“A lot of people have taken language classes in high school and completely forgotten all of it later in life so did it really help them?” Cluck said. “I’m not sure but I wish I would have learned another spoken language when I was younger.”