Programming in Schools: Lessons from Language Learning

In Education, Educational Technology, Modern Foreign Languages

When we learn to write, we don’t start by studying the process through which the ink travels from the cartridge to the nib of our pen and on to the paper. When we learn to speak another language, we don’t first study buccopharyngeal anatomy in the hope it will facilitate the production of difficult foreign sounds. When we learn to drive a car, we worry more about making the machine work and less about how the machine works.

In each of these cases, achieving a successful outcome – becoming an accomplished writer, a speaker of foreign language or a talented racing driver – is not dependent on the intimate knowledge of the processes involved and can demonstrably be achieved with only a basic understanding thereof.

Indeed, it does not necessarily follow that a car mechanic should be a good driver or that a otorhinolaryngologist would boast an uncanny ability to pick up new languages.

I think computer programming – or coding – shares many similarities with the laboured analogies above. In order to master the use of a computer, some basic understanding of programming will undoubtedly be helpful, but this begs the question: what outcome do we wish to achieve when we suggest programming should be taught in schools? Do we want children who can use computers effortlessly or children who can speak computer fluently?

Many have suggested that schools ought to view programming as the new Latin so that the UK can become a competitor against the likes of Silicon Valley. However, I’m not convinced that a focus on learning to code will result in a generation of students bred with the sole purpose of taking on the likes of Google or Microsoft. If the traditional approach to learning languages is anything to go by, it’s more likely to result in a generation of students that are made to learn languages and then drop them at the earliest opportunity.

At this point I need to acknowledge that I am not an ICT specialist and that I approach this topic from the perspective of a foreign languages teacher and, as such, my understanding of teaching and learning in schools is biased by my experience.

In languages teaching, there was for a time a focus on grammar teaching above all else. It was thought that explicit grammar teaching and learning was the elementary first step for any self-respecting budding linguist.

In practice, languages teachers soon realised that an in-depth understanding of grammar was not a means to an end, but rather part of the end in itself: a better understanding of the grammar resulted from learning the language and not vice-versa.

This approach – now deemed old-fashioned – to grammar teaching as the basis for language learning often resulted in generations of students who could conjugate verbs with ease but could not produce a single functioning utterance in the target language to save their lives.

Having learnt from the lessons of the past, today foreign languages teaching focuses on the use and the production of language, and although it is accepted that grammar is still important – rightly so – grammar learning is just as likely to take place implicitly as well as explicitly.

This is why native English speakers can speak and write perfectly fluently – and even win the Noble Prize for literature – with only a notional understanding of what phrasal verbs are or indeed do.

Programming is, after all, often referred to as a language and, as such, I think there are plenty of parallels and lessons to be learnt from your languages department’s humble attempts to get it right.

Just a thought. What do you think?

Many thanks to GaH for his photo.

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  1. I was introduced to computer programming in 1974, using a language known as FORTRAN. It was designed mainly for manipulating numbers, although it was possible to use it for non-numeric programming. Then, in 1978, I began to learn BASIC. Again, it was not the best language for non-numeric programming but I learned how to make it do what I wanted, and in due course I began to write programs such as GapKit and Fun with Texts in BASIC. In 1985 I wrote a book titled “Talking BASIC: an introduction to BASIC programming for users of language”, in which I passed on most of the important lessons I had learned. It was based to a large extent on the BBC Micro version of BASIC, which at that time was accessible to thousands of users in UK schools.

    I found computer programming fascinating. Learning a computer language was easier than learning a natural language as computer languages are just sets of rules with no exceptions. Writing a computer program is an excellent mental discipline. I used to get my students, for example, to write programs that conjugated French and German verbs. The idea was that you entered the infinitive and the required tense and the program would conjugate the verb. It made students think about the rules of natural language that always worked and the numerous exceptions that had to be built into the program. They learned a lot about natural language and about programming at the same time.

    Back in the 1980s the UK was the leader in Europe in educational computing. We were producing a vast number of computer programs that could be used right across the curriculum. We were particularly strong in the area that (from 1982) became known as CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning), and I was invited to lug my BBC Micro all over Europe to demonstrate what we could do. I think it is a great pity that the focus in ICT in schools has shifted towards learning how to use apps rather than how the electronic wizardry works and how you make computers do what you want them to do. Good programmers are still in demand, working in a range of new languages. I don’t think it would do any harm to turn the clock back.

    • I must disagree with your parting comment Grahame. I think looking at the past with rose-tinted spectacles will not help to engage our current students with learning languages – whether they are foreign or programming languages. 

      For every contemporary of yours who loved their grammar based language learning experience, there are five others who were left scarred for life believing they simply could not do languages. They now run the country. Languages are no longer compulsory. Nuff said, I think!I think there must be a balance between knowledge and skills when it comes teaching children to be computer literate – whatever that may mean. Focusing overly on the knowledge to the detriment of the skills will disengage the majority of children, if the trend set by foreign languages is anything to go by.However, I do agree with and much admire your approach to learning about programming languages in the context of learning foreign languages. Genius!

      Many thanks for your insights Grahame.

      • José, I was not suggesting a return to the GT approach – which I never really enjoyed. I was taught German mainly by teachers who used the GT approach (as if it were a dead language like Latin), and I was taught French mainly by teachers who believed in the use of the target language most of the time in the classroom – balanced by a bit of grammar teaching. The latter were ahead of their time (this was in the 1950s). In the end I ended up with similar grades at O-Level in both German and French, but my German surged ahead after I had spent three weeks in Germany on an exchange visit – and since then it has always been the stronger of my two main languages. These were the O-Level papers that I sat in 1958:

        When I talk about turning the clock back I was referring to the heyday of raising ICT awareness in the 1980s: e.g. the BBC TV series, The Computer Programme, and the various other initiatives by the CET (the predecessor of BECTA) and CILT. CILT’s first publication on CALL appeared in 1982. The CET changed its name twice before it became BECTA, namely MESU and the NCET. It was very active in promoting foreign languages in those days.

  2. I’m not sure that the analogy of grammar-translation/communication and programming/using computers is very useful (if I understood you correctly).

    Sure, GT was for most pupils not the best way to get them to internalise grammar and to become fluent.

    But to get young people to programme, they simply have to learn how to use that language, don’t they? That need not be at the expense of using programmes for other purposes.

    Maybe I misread what you meant.

    • I think you might have! 

      Dichotomies. You gotta love’em. At no time was I suggesting that learning programming grammar – to continue with my, by the way, perfectly good analogy 😉 – should be ignored. 

      I don’t buy into the knowledge versus skills arguments (unhelpful, false dichotomies!). It’s not a question of either/or, but rather one of as-well-as. 

      The proponents of bringing back programming to schools often appear to view its introduction in schools as the solution to the problem of relatively low numbers of young people choosing to make a career out of computing. Something which we all agree is indeed a problem and must be addressed. 

      But they appear tome to be proposing an either/or solution. All I am suggesting is that, as the lessons learnt in foreign languages show, the solution must tackle both aspects: knowledge and skills.

      I hope that is makes my position clearer. My apologies that I did not manage to do that in the original post.

      Thanks for your comment Steven.

Your feedback is always welcome

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