Learn to code or to communicate

President Obama writing JavaScript

President Obama speaking Indonesian

The President speaking Indonesian

Our Virginia General Assembly, according to Wikipedia, the “oldest continuous law-making body in the New World” has in recent years been responsible for some real screamers in terms of proposed new laws. Those include proposals to ban low-riding pants and measures that would allow legally blind people to drive motorcycles. Some have attracted national attention, such as a law to give fertilized eggs legal status as persons or, most recently, the proposed requirement for invasive transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking an abortion, which included the stipulation that the woman’s medical record indicate whether or not she viewed the ultrasound or listened to the fetal heartbeat.

This session a proposed law would allow high schools in Virginia to consider computer programming as a substitute for learning a foreign language. Currently, either 3 years of study of a single foreign language or two years each of two different languages is required for the college-prep diploma. Virginia is not the first state to consider such a step. Florida is currently considering a similar change and Kentucky has implemented it.

In a story from my local NPR station, a high school student was all for it:

“That would actually make my year, not only does it make sense, it’s something that I’m interested in…Because in Spanish class earlier today I was just sitting with my head down like, ‘Why do I have to do this?’ But here I feel like I can express my interests better.”

 His comment may say more about the quality of local language instruction than about the wisdom of changing the requirement. Interestingly, a computer science teacher at the same school, Chris Neville, had a different track:

“Some kids aren’t necessarily ever going to use Spanish, the kids who really need it, are probably the kids who don’t want to take it,” Neville said. “I don’t believe in really locking kids into what they want to do right now, because I changed my mind 14 times before I decided what I was going to do.”

And besides, says Neville, the fundamentals of programming, like logical reasoning and problem solving, are more in line with math than foreign language.

Indeed, the idea that a programming “language” is equivalent to a human language is strange and misguided. The procedural steps, hierarchical reasoning, and logical branching in coding are closer to mathematical skills and concepts. In math and programming, there tends to be a particular (and often unique) correct pathway or answer. Linguists would be happy to explain that this is far from how human language works. Language is rarely used to simply transfer information back and forth, as common folk wisdom might assume; instead it is full of stops and starts, interruptions, broken sentences, simultaneous speaking. Mostly, there is little logic involved. Rules of grammar may be cut and dry, but that is a small part of what constitutes human communication in any language. The study of language pragmatics, the branch of linguistics that deals with the significance of speech in real human discourse, has shown how tied language is to the particular context in which it is used, and therefore how dependent all conversation is on cultural cues and clues. The inextricable connection between language and culture is one of the major insights that comes from the study of a foreign language.

Monolinguals typically see differences among languages as being mostly semantic, i.e. just using different words for the same concepts. But the word designating the same object in different languages may have very different real meanings. The word for forest in German is Wald, which, as in English conveys the idea of a lot of trees together. But the word in German has rich overtones that harken back to the Germanic tribes’ pagan worship of trees, the mysterious forest happenings of the best known Grimm Brothers fairy tales, and place names like the Schwarzwald (Black Forest), all of which (and more) imbue the word Wald, when used by speakers of German, with historical and cultural associations unique to that language. Learning a language provides entry into the deep recesses of a culture – a proficient second language speaker gains an insider’s perspective.

One of the real tragedies of not providing an incentive for adolescents to start learning a language while in school is related to the age at which it is easiest to learn languages, namely early in life. The critical period hypothesis points to the biological and psychological developments in humans that make it difficult to learn a language well when starting language acquisition as an adult. In fact, children, given their innate curiosity and lack of self-consciousness, are ideal language learners, eager to imitate and not afraid to make mistakes.

I am totally in favor of high school students learning computer programming – I see this as fundamental to 21st-century life (see my piece on digital literacies). However, there is no reason coding should be considered as an alternative to language learning. In our interconnected world, the ability to communicate with others requires both computer skills and sensitivity to cultural issues in language use – something best learned through second language study.

Resting smirk face


Martin Shkreli, on Capitol Hill

There was a study released recently on “resting bitch face”, that world-weary look that expresses boredom, and contempt, indicating that, contrary to what the name seems to indicate, the facial expression is just as frequent in men as in women. The look, according to a Huffingtonpost article is often associated with particular celebrities, namely Anna Kendrick, Kristen Stewart, Queen Elizabeth and Kanye West.

But none of those folks can hold a candle to the facial expressions exhibited today in a Capitol Hill hearing by Martin Shkreli, which one tweet characterized as “resting smirk face”. Shkreli is the infamous former chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals, the one who after acquiring Turing increased the price of Daraprim, a drug that treats a parasitic infection, from $13.50 to $750 a pill. He has recently come under a federal indictment for operating what was in effect a Ponzi scheme in his previous business dealings. But in his appearance today before a congressional committee he was anything but contrite. He pleaded the Fifth, refusing to answer any questions, but although he was verbally restrained, his body language spoke volumes. He smiled, looked all around the room, laughed, shook his head mockingly, and posed for photographs, all while congressmen were making comments or asking questions; in fact, he seemed to be enjoying himself mightily.

His best smirk came when uttering the word “respectfully” in “on the advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer your questions”, clearly taunting the congressmen. A smirk nearly as good accompanied his response to a congressman telling him he was welcome to answer questions which could not be possibly be incriminating (such as how to pronounce his name): “I intend to follow the advice of my counsel, not yours.” In fact, Shkreli has gained quite a reputation for his smirks, so much so that the Washington Post has created a gallery of his best.

The scientists who studied “resting bitch face” indicate that although contempt is conveyed by the look, it is often not intended. No such innocent interpretation is possible with Shkreli. After the hearing, he tweeted, “Hard to accept that these imbeciles represent the people in our government.” Probably not the way to win friends and influence neighbors.