Patrick West

Teach kids to code? They’re better off learning languages

Teach kids to code? They're better off learning languages
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A leading artificial intelligence professor has said that children should learn to write software. According to professor Michael Bronstein of Oxford University, this would make children more logical. 'I think coding is an extension of language – it's a way of disciplining your mind for formal, logical thinking.' Indeed it is. But so is learning an actual human language a way of disciplining your mind, of making it more logical.

A better idea would be to resume teaching other human languages up to GCSE level. Not only do second languages improve powers of logic, they also teach you to deal with nuance and irrationality. Languages are full of idiosyncrasies and illogicalities – common irregular verbs being the most obvious. And unlike computer codes, real languages like French or Spanish do not become obsolete.

When it comes to learning a second language, the most evident benefit is in learning grammar and what words actually do. Most people who went to secondary school after the 1960s will not have been taught English grammar, and we only became familiar with the mechanics of language through French lessons. We had to know the difference between the present, imperfect, perfect and pluperfect tenses, and that we say 'I go', 'I am going', 'I have gone' and 'I had gone' according to circumstance. Those gifted with some Latin lessons learnt to spot the difference between a subject and object, and that unlike in that ancient language, in English, the word order is very important; that in English 'dog bites man' is different to 'man bites dog'.

Latin, with all its declensions, can be notoriously difficult. But that's why it's so instructive, because it improves mental vigour, of knowing why 'Romani ite domum' is right and 'Romanes eunt domus' is wrong. Languages all contain their own internal logic, and can be regarded as human codes to be cracked, or like sudoku puzzles or crosswords. As with mind-improving crosswords, the more difficult they are, the more satisfying it is to complete one. That's what makes German, with all its erratic, meandering words and baffling structure, the ultimate weekend jumbo cryptic crossword European language of them all.

Some may lament as redundant or useless their foreign language lessons of yore, but these taught you to think logically because they taught you to think differently. First up for teenagers: learning that inanimate objects can be masculine or feminine. Second up: there's two ways of saying 'you' to someone, the choice of which really matters. Then you learn that there is no way to say 'his' or 'her' thing in Romance languages, only the masculine or feminine object that belongs to the person or persons.

By translating foreign languages back into English, you discover so much about your own mother tongue. You learn to appreciate the precise difference between when and how to use the perfect tense and the definite past. You use the former when a fairly recent action has happened, or could possibly be repeated, such as 'I've been to Germany'. You use the definite past for a dated action, one fully completed, or one that could not be repeated: 'I went to Germany in 1986' or 'I went to East Germany.' By learning Italian I learnt why the English construction 'if I were you' is perfectly correct.

That word 'went' is revealing in itself. It's actually the simple past tense of the verb 'to wend', which attached itself over time to the verb 'to go'. 'Goed' remains the most logical formation of the verb, which is why most children go through a stage of using it: when we learn languages through osmosis as infants we 'follow the rules' as we instinctively grasp them.

Conversely, irregularities have to be actively learnt. When we are taught languages, we are instructed about these irregularities from the outset. So that in Italian, 'I am, I was, I have been, I was (a long time ago)', is 'sono, ero, sono stato, fui'. You learn that with verbs of motion in most European languages you don't say 'I have come' but 'I am come', which reminds us that we used to use the verb 'to be' as an auxiliary verb this way in English. In Shakespeare's plays the protagonists will always pronounce 'I am arrived' or 'he is gone'.

They also say 'thou' a lot in Shakespeare, an archaic way of saying 'you' in regards to family, friends and inferiors. There remains in French this distinction between its equivalent 'tu', and 'vous'. It's a tough one to learn and negotiate for Anglophones, and there is never even a rule in French about when to make the transition from the formal to the familiar. It's all about judgment and intuition, about when it 'feels' right. This is something computer coding can never teach you: the human mind is a blend of the logical and inexplicable.

Written byPatrick West

Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked and author of Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times (Societas, 2017)

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