A Programming Language does NOT count as a second language

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Although I still think learning several is good for you.

Hello Worlds (why humanities students should learn to program) « Matthew G. Kirschenbaum. (May 23, 2010)

While I do agree with some of what he says, his misconceptions convince me that there is more to learning about Informatics (I don’t think Computer Science is the right term anymore. CS as a discipline is dying anyways.) than teaching yourself to code. THIS:

“in my own case, almost a decade ago, I was granted permission to use the computer language Perl in lieu of proficiency in the second of two languages that my department required for the Ph.D.”

is something for which the institution should feel both shame and regret. It highlights the fact that they really have no idea.

For years I have thought that all people should know how to program, but this literacy goes much deeper than that – it is not the language that is important, it is the understanding of logic and abstraction that it affords. I know probably 20 different programming languages – NONE of them are adequate substitutes for a second natural language, individually or collectively. Passing off Perl as a second language reveals a profound misunderstanding of linguistics, languages, and cognition. If Perl is accepted as a second language, then calculus should be too. It is far more complex.

I know many people who know how to program, but who still do not know much about logic nor do they understand how the machine actually works. I also know many people who teach programming who do not really understand how machines and programming works.

It is possible to learn how to drive a car without ever knowing how it works.

And by the way, the traditional “Hello World” program is not an especially good first program. It might have been 25 years ago, but not now. Still, if you are interested, here is a site that shows you that program in hundreds of different programming, scripting, markup, and other languages.


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A Programming Language does NOT count as a second language — 2 Comments

  1. I think this is ‘sorta’ true…

    I’d say for the past 20-30 years most Phd programs had a really loose definition of what mastery of a 2nd language was and is to the point that validation could be going to an office hour and ‘sorta’ conversing so someone wrote down: he/she is ok in language x, somewhere.

    The reason for 2 language proficiency in the past was that often significant work was written in French or German or Russian. English and improvements in machine translation, and plain old fashioned translation and publication have greatly reduced that personal need. I’m sure there are fields where you still need the ability but I doubt if it is any modern technical field. Computer programming and statistical skills are probably as important if not more in many fields.

    Also, going to the way back machine you couldn’t a get a PhD without Latin and Greek. I would not have a PhD if I needed Latin and Greek in spite of 4 years of Latin. Thank god some things change. 😎

    • I agree that a second language seems less crucial in a world of ready translations, and I also think that knowing how to program is important, but though related, learning a second natural language to the point of being functionally fluent and learning how to program are different enough that one can not be used as a substitute for the other. People should have BOTH. You learn things about language and ways of thinking from studying a second language that are useful even if you never need to read any scholarly papers in that language. You also learn useful things about logic and precision when learning how to program.

      That having been said, knowing a single programming language is ALSO not enough.

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