Why 'on' shouldn't always mean 'off': Machine vs human code

2015-09-10 16:28

Heather Martin Subject Genius

It's not news that news media favour attention-grabbing headlines. The trouble is that we often fall for the hype. And even if we don't, it often has some kind of subliminal effect on the zeitgeist.

On August 20th, GCSE results day, @BBCNews set the tone by proclaiming: 'Programming languages more popular than spoken ones'. The Guardian chimed in, with: 'Figures show slump in foreign languages and rise in computing'. Then a week later, @CityA.M. reported:  'Coding overtakes French as UK's most popular second language in primary schools'.

Online responses were mostly sanguine in tone, succinctly summed up in one case by 'well obviously'. Computer science, after all, is a relatively new mainstream subject at GCSE, and this alone would account for the spectacular increase in uptake. 

But what I take exception to is not the fact, but the spin. In particular, the discourse of either/or, implying the rise of one empire and the fall of another, an interpretation supported by recent reports from the British Council and the CfBT Education Trust, both of which see foreign languages as under threat from other subjects. It appears we can only welcome in the new while ushering out the old, and that we are compelled to take sides. The purportedly pitiable state of languages is on plain view in the negative noun 'slump'. CityA.M. is more aggressive in asserting that coding's newfound success is 'shoving French into second place'. Foreign languages, as usual rather punily reduced to 'French', are muscled aside by Computing, with Google and Microsoft hovering in the background like a couple of handy heavies.

Slump, shove, decline: once again the misleadingly hyperbolic narrative is one of doom and gloom. Conversely, coding is the cool kid in the playground, attracting a crowd of hangers-on and upbeat epithets such as 'popular' and 'favourite'. But the danger is that the incidental soundbite all too easily morphs into self-fulfilling prophecy, as though the health of the new discipline depends on undermining the old. We are guilty, in short, of crude binary thinking, of thinking too much like machines.

CityA.M. cites a survey of 3,000 people by Ocado Technology, which claims to have established that most 5-to-11-year-olds 'would rather find out how to programme a robot than learn to converse with their Gallic neighbours'. Hardly a fair contest: cute Pixar-style robot over here, on the shelf, faceless 'Gallic' neighbour across some remote invisible sea. Their parents, it seems, despite the profusion of holiday homes in France, felt much the same. Python, right now, apparently scores over Paris, Provence, and pain au chocolat. 

The structural similarities between human and machine codes are readily identified, with the essential vocabulary and grammar of basic HTML simply offering a new variety of language game. And a cyber feel is already built into language, thanks to its dependence on binary opposition: p/q, b/d, up/down, yes/no, he/she. A structuralist account of language is by definition reductive, however, and the BBC headline at least suggests a key distinction between 'programming' and 'spoken' languages. Perhaps the distance between written script and coding is not so great, since output in both cases is depersonalised, orphaned off from the author. But although the computer could no doubt be programmed to read the bedtime story and sing my sons to sleep, the 'spoken' word is undeniably informed by a unique, individual human presence: it is a quintessentially human interface. And this is where my 'Gallic' neighbour comes into his/her own: a flesh-and-blood someone to make friends with, to hang out with, to share experiences with, to eat and drink with, in the non-virtual world.

In the anxious rush to fill the computer science skills gap, it is easy to forget that we are equally vulnerable to an ongoing foreign language skills gap. We need linguists just as much as engineers; better still engineers who are also linguists. Academics on both sides have sought to reach out across the artificial divide. Writing in 2013, Dr Bill Rivers, a leader in U.S. language policy development, categorises language as a STEM subject and concludes that 'the language industry is fundamental to furthering every aspect of STEM professions and business'. Writing in the Washington Post earlier this year, Dr Loretta Jackson-Hayes (associate professor of chemistry at Rhodes College in Memphis), argues that scientists must ideally be expert communicators, in both written and spoken word, citing Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs - with their 'ability to apply cross-disciplinary thinking to an incredibly complex world' - as inspirational examples. So it seems uncontroversial to add hard-nosed marketability to other, more idealistic reasons for studying (spoken) languages: cultural awareness, global mindset, increased tolerance, heightened empathy, improved problem-solving skills, enhanced academic results, even reduced susceptibility to dementia.

A 2014 report in The Economist cites a nation's ability to operate equally in more than one language as a determining factor in wealth creation and estimates that lack of foreign-language proficiency in Britain costs the economy upwards of £48 billion each year. It makes the persuasive case for greater investment in foreign-language teaching, which would have other 'dynamic effects', among them more and better teachers and materials, and more importantly, 'a cultural premium on multilingualism'. 

The digital world relies heavily on metaphor to render its disincarnate nature visible to the mind's eye, drawing on the imagery of the real world for its poetry: thus we speak of webs and nets and surfing and pods and windows and vistas. And it likewise draws on pre-existing languages for much of its technical vocabulary, with the phrase 'syntax error' regaining a glamour long since lost in English (and even French) lessons despite the recent return of grammar to the primary classroom.

Computing invokes the status of language to humanise its image. Similarly, language piggy-backs on computing cool by rebranding itself as code. Surely the relationship should be positively and productively symbiotic, not parasitic; collaborative, rather than conflictual. Intelligently managed, the rise of one need not mean - as seems to be the risk in practice - the demise of the other. Co-existence is both possible and necessary. As a culture, we should be wary of seduction by the binary code, in education as in all things, and try adopting a more deconstructive approach: switching machine languages on shouldn't mean switching human languages off.

Dr Heather Martin is a languages specialist, and assistant head (curriculum) at Kensington Prep School.