Programming serves as a language

If that French class is full and Chinese doesn’t fit your schedule, you might want to flip through the computer science or engineering course catalog and pick up a class on programming instead.

Programming languages, like C++ or Java, aren’t natural languages. They didn’t develop without premeditation, like English, which has been evolving for centuries, and they can’t be picked up by a baby with normal language acquisition skills. Created as a way to give instructions to computers, programming languages won’t give you a common language ground with another person in the way Italian might, but they might change the way you express thoughts and ideas.

Computers may be fast and powerful, but they’re not smart. Giving executable instructions to a blank screen, with no mind of its own, requires a certain kind of communication skill. You can’t assume any shared experiences with a computer; you need to know how to give instructions from the bottom up, which requires thinking quite hard about what you’re trying to accomplish.

If someone handed you ten numbered cards and asked you to put them in order, it would hardly be a challenge. But if that person had never heard of sorting before, and asked you to give a detailed account of the logic behind the process, what would you say?

Learning how to communicate with a machine may not help you from getting lost in a foreign country, but it does teach you to navigate problems and express your thoughts with a clearer perspective. Programming accustoms you to constructing a plan of action before diving in. We can all benefit from taking an extra five minutes to think about what we’re trying to say before saying it.

After writing a program that can add up two thousand-digit numbers faster than a person can say “supercalculator,” a 10-page English paper no longer seems quite so daunting. It’s one thing to be able to say hola or bonjour. It’s another entirely, but no less worthwhile, to declare cout << “Hello, world!”;


Alexa Langen is a sophomore majoring in English and history.

April 20, 2014


Alexa Langen

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