Category: Languages

On learning foreign languages and learning to code, and why they're (mostly) different

23 March 2014

I recently started learning how to code, and increasingly, I've been noticing the similarities and differences in the skills I'm developing now and those I developed at university, while studying languages.

“I'm not coding, I'm just copying and pasting” is the answer that came up when someone asked me how good my technical skills were last week. At the time I believed it, too: I was simply looking for what I wanted to make, finding the code behind it, and copying it and pasting it into the appropriate place. I wasn't creating anything new myself, but rather using the building blocks that others had already created.

But isn't that exactly what happens with spoken languages? With first language acquisition, children learn by repetition; they hear things being said around them, and repeat them. In a way, this is the oral version of 'copying and pasting'; and when children do this, we consider it to be 'speaking.'

One aspect I found difficult when starting my foray into coding was (and, this might sound incredibly obvious to those of you who can code!) not being able to recognise what language it was purely from looking at my screen. To me, it all looked the same; black screen, coloured text, incomprehensible words and symbols. Without checking what file I was in from the name or the file type, I didn't know what I was looking at, and of course the rules and the language used differs dependent upon this. I've often tried to insert a line I've seen elsewhere into a file type that doesn't recognise that language, before realising I'm 'speaking' the wrong one. This mistake reminds me of my 3 year old niece and nephew who are learning both French and English and sometimes mix up the languages within the same sentence or phrase.

It's interesting to me that the mistakes I'm making in learning to code are largely similar to first language (L1) acquisition (what babies/children do) as opposed to second language (L2) acquisition as an adult. With L2 acquisition, the mistakes can often come from, for example, falling back on L1 rules to supplement missing knowledge in the new, second language. With coding, this (for me!) is not possible. It makes sense, though, as I am learning my first coding language – although in linguistics, we learn that due to varying social, cultural and physiological developments between children and adults, the mistakes you make as a child will not be replicated as an adult. Me learning how to code seems to be proving this wrong!

Recognising patterns amongst what you're seeing, or hearing, is another common thread; realising that you can break them up into smaller blocks to perform another function is incredibly liberating, on both the coding and the speaking front. Anyone who studied spoken languages at school or university will undoubtedly remember being given a list of set phrases to use in essays, and inevitably these phrases, originally learned by rote, were broken up and used in different ways when it came to exams. So, when I was shown this Global CSS settings list for Bootstrap, it felt wonderfully familiar as the coding equivalent of this list of set phrases.

While there are other similarities between the various learning techniques, there are also some key differences. I've learned spoken languages in a variety of ways; intensive 8 hours a week of grammar for 2 years (bringing me to a basic level of Arabic); French, in small chunks since the age of 11, in France and at university; Spanish, intensively throughout 3 years and a stint in Spain, and German, exclusively by speaking and listening. The outputs of these methods have been varying in terms of the skills they've given me, but in all cases I've happily ended up with the desired skills, through what I believe to be the quickest route there.

Because of this experience, the main piece of advice I give to people wanting to learn languages is to first understand your motivation, and then choose your learning technique from there.

For example, wanting to speak German and be able to take part in conversations, but not being concerned about having good grammar, meant that speaking and listening to people and podcasts was a good technique, while wanting to learn how to read and write formal Arabic lent itself to intensive grammar lessons. So, what are my motivations with learning how to code?

I want to understand the world better.

I know that I don't yet fully understand what is possible with programming, and I see on a daily basis exciting projects and examples of programming being used to create things that astonish me. I love the idea of being able to communicate complex ideas to people in a way that they can really easily understand, or being able to help people who haven't (yet) been able to get their voices heard by decision-makers to have a say in how their world works.

So, my motivations in learning to code are complicated, and mixed, and, actually, fairly political. Clearly, this is where my stellar advice falls flat on its face; there's no learning technique here that will help me reach my goal quicker than any other.  

There is a key difference between learning a programming language, and learning a spoken language. A desire for communication seems to be the major driving force in learning any language. Whether you want to be on the receiving end of new types of communication (read books in a different language, or watch films), or whether you want to share your knowledge with others (speaking to new people, or writing for a new audience).

The crucial difference here though, is that with spoken languages, you can only communicate with someone who also knows that language. With programming languages, you can communicate with anybody. They can interact with the product of your coding without needing any understanding of how it was made; even if offline or away from a traditional computer, you can create or build things that can change people's perceptions and understandings of the world. 

And this is what I find wonderful, and beautiful, and slightly mystical, about coding.  

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Funny coding terms - a glossary

03 March 2014

As I've been learning more about coding, a number of unusual terms and phrases have come up, and I've been having fun finding out more and discovering their etymology. I'm documenting these findings in this glossary I've started, and I've set it up on Github to make it as easy as possible for others to contribute. 

It's in very early stages yet - I'd like to add examples of each term, and make sure it's explained in a way that non-coders can understand, too. I've tried to distill some technical explanations down into easy-to-understand definitions, so if I've made any mistakes in my understanding, please let me know! 

If you have any other terms to add, corrections to make or definitions to expand upon, please feel free to submit a pull request directly

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What do Bangladesh, Canada, Switzerland and Spain have in common?

16 February 2014

Over the past couple of months, I've had the privilege of travelling to Bangladesh, Canada, Spain and Switzerland, and oddly, I found that all four had an unexpected quality in common; the way in which different languages within the country influenced and affected everyday life and politics.

In bilingual Montreal, anything that was government-run (including a couple of days of the conference that I attended) had to be conducted in both French and English. Wonderfully, this meant government officials would switch languages halfway through speeches and sometimes even halfway through sentences. In between feeling sorry for the interpreters, I thoroughly enjoyed this blend of languages.

It became clear also, that there were many more loan words between their particular versions of English and French, because of the switching; hearing people talk (in English) about the 'animator' of a particular company left me a little confused before realising that 'animateur' in French simply means “organiser” - they were talking about the head of the company, not a designer! Similarly, I'd never heard 'bienvenue' (literally, 'welcome' but in France, always used in the context of 'welcome to... (a place)' rather than 'you're welcome) as a response to 'merci'.

I heard also of resentment growing towards English speakers in increasingly Anglophile areas of Montreal, where staunch Francophiles would respond to anyone in French, even if they understood and spoke English, and knew that the speaker wouldn't understand them.

I experienced a similar phenomenon myself in Spain, when I stopped by Barcelona a week later; in cafes, although I was speaking 'castellano' (ie. Spanish understood in Spain) people would only respond to me in Catalan, despite me having made clear that I didn't understand Catalan.

It was the first time I'd experienced something like this personally. For example, in a cafe I apologised for not speaking Catalan and asked for a bottle of water in Castillian; the waiter went to fetch the water but continued speaking Catalan to me, I apologised again, and instead of simply saying how much I owed in a language I understood, he wrote down the figure on a pad of paper and pushed it towards me. He was very, very determined not to speak anything but Catalan!

When I got to my final destination in Spain, Zaragoza (just next door to Catalunya) I was asked a lot about the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. People seemed to see lots of comparisons between Catalunya and Scotland, and some were slightly incredulous that the UK had 'allowed' Scotland to hold such a referendum. It was clear that the reluctance of people I met in Barcelona to speak anything but Catalan was part of a much wider battle, one which came up much more frequently in conversation than it had when I was living in Madrid back in 2009.

Politics and language, in this case, were clearly linked, and this was another theme I saw while I was in Switzerland, as, sadly, a vote was passed to impose quotas on immigrants to the country. There were two clear trends in voting for this xenophobic law; firstly, the language split, and secondly the number of immigrants in those areas.

This is a map of the language split in Switzerland; as you can see, the Swiss German population is the largest (63.7% of the population) followed by Swiss French (20.4%), then Italian (6.5%) and Romansh (0.5%).

And this is a map of how people voted in the elections; there's a heavy overlap with the Swiss-German areas, and the areas that voted 'Yes', with the exception of Zurich, up in the north.

[image via @electionista]

Another trend, illustrated by the chart below, shows that regions with fewer immigrants were more likely to vote 'yes' (ie. for the introduction of quotas) whereas those with high percentages of immigrants already living in the regions tended to vote against the quotas. Fear of the unknown was clearly a motivation for those who hadn't experienced much immigration in their areas, and seemingly didn't want to, either.

[image by Martin Grandjean]

I wasn't aware previously of the extent of the majority which the Swiss German population hold here; clearly, with over 60% of the population, they are the most powerful demographic. I also find it interesting how people tended to vote in blocks depending upon their language affiliation; again, clearly language is a lot more than merely a method of communication.

Another example of the crucial importance of language can be seen in Bangladesh, which is, as far as I know, the first country that was born out of a language-related dispute; essentially, the political movement fighting for the right to use Bengali as an official language in everyday life was a catalyst in the move towards national identity, which were precursors to the Bangladeshi Liberation War.

Having seen so clearly in just those four countries the power and importance of languages within society, seeing statements coming out of the UK encouraging people to study languages for economic reasons, or in David Cameron's words "to seal tomorrow's business deals” frustrates me hugely. I find encouraging language learning by way of promoting trade between countries a terribly sad, and reductive, perspective on the many riches that different languages bring to society.

There are many, many other reasons that us lazy native English speakers should learn other languages; understanding cultures, societies and people being just some of them. If we in native-English speaking countries want to have any chance of understanding the politics, societies and cultures of other, language-diverse countries, we have to stop thinking about language-learning as a luxury or as an economic tool, but instead realise that it's a crucial step towards tolerance and understanding of other cultures.

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A lazy person's guide to learning German

29 July 2013

Somehow I've been living in Germany for just over two years now, and with this experience I've found myself in the position of trying to give friends who are settling advice on coming over here, how to deal with German bureaucracy (argh) and, most recently, tips on learning German. So, just in case these links and resources are useful for anybody else out there, I thought I'd collect them all here.

To be completely up front, though; my German learning has been of the laziest kind. I have (or, had) many excuses; moving to a new country, starting a new job, not wanting to study after 8/9 hours sitting in front of my computer, and, shamefully, when I first arrived, thinking it wasn't actually that helpful, as I wasn't planning on staying in a German-speaking country quite as long as I have done!

But even without hours slaving over vocabulary lists, and grammar rules, and all sorts of not-so-entertaining means out there, there are other ways...

My first port of call was Deutsche Welle, an international public broadcaster based in Berlin. They have an incredible range of online German learning resources- and even better, they're all free.

My favourite: the Interactive German learning portal (click on the box on the right, “Start the Course”. It's an online portal that starts from the very basics (level A1, in language-learning speak); you sign in, and it remembers where you're at each time you leave the platform. It includes a range of activities; matching up words, listening comprehensions, grammar lessons, filling in the gaps.

It provides tests at the end of each mini level so you can assess how things are going, and you can choose whether you want the portal to be in English or in German at the top of the introduction screen. It's a good one to pick up and do for 10 minutes or so every few days until you get the basics, as it doesn't require too much time commitment each go.

If you want something to learn from that doesn't require you actually actively doing anything, I'd recommend their Langsam gesprochene Nachrichten – or, Slowly Spoken News podcast. Every day, a new 6-7 minute podcast is released of a native German man or woman reading out the day's news headlines, slowed down. In terms of language-learning this is a truly brilliant idea, as it gives the listener updated material that is genuinely interesting to hear, has a podcast for the same section of news read out at the actual speed, and you can also find the text that is read out, if you want to follow along.

Listening to this on my commute to work helped me hugely, though it did take me a while afterwards to get used to people speaking at a regular pace! Deutsche Welle also have a range of other resources, though I've never really used the others.

Other resources I've found helpful; this online dictionary from Leo. Before moving to Germany, my foreign language online dictionary of choice was always, always the great Wordreference.com – but it turns out their English-German section isn't great. (NB, for French and Spanish though, they're wonderful!)

On my iPhone I have an offline dictionary downloaded from dict.cc which has proven very helpful when needing to ask for insect repellant at the pharmacy, or double cream at the supermarket, for example.

I also downloaded a flash card app, after hearing that language-learning with flash cards was all the rage. I must admit though, that I'm not such a fan; perhaps it was just the way that I was using it, but coming across new words in conversation and learning them in context worked a lot better for me.

And last but not least; conversation! Speaking to German people. Making an idiot of myself, getting words mixed up, misunderstanding, but making people laugh and having lots of fun at the same time. I started speaking just a couple of minutes a day, and have gradually, over 18 months or so built up to having friends with whom I only speak German (though with many, many grammatical errors, the odd English word mixed in, and frequent confusion on my part!)

Caveat: the methods you use to learn a language depend a lot on two main things; first, what do you want to get out of it? For me, it was just speaking to people, understanding conversations, and not having to ask groups of German people to speak in English just because I was present. Writing good German is way down on my priority list, as I'm fairly certain I won't be needing it extensively in my job.

And second, how do you learn best? If you don't know, then try a few different things and see what sticks. Maybe it's flashcards, or podcasts, or simply writing yourself 10 words of new vocabulary a day for a few weeks. German is the first language I've learned without regular grammar classes and studying a few hours a week at least; but (and again, the excuses!) - I've just not been motivated to sit down and study after working all day. As I've found, though, not wanting to study so much is definitely not an excuse to at least giving it a go, and it really does make living in Berlin a much nicer experience!

**Updated, June 2014**

Learning while singing is easily one of the most fun ways to learn. There are various ways you can do this; listen to the song, for example, try and identify as many words as you can, and write down what you hear. Or, read through the lyrics while you're listening and try and sing along, or have a go at translating the lyrics to check you've understood. (and if you haven't- no big deal!).

I've used the songs of a friend of mine, Alin Coen, a lot for this, as lots of the lyrics are online, which helps a lot: she has some gorgeous songs, including Wolken (lyrics hereIch war hier (lyrics here); the heartbreaking 'Kein Weg Zurück (lyrics here), and the lovely Einer will immer mehr (lyrics here). There's lots more, but those are a few of my favourites, and happily lots have the lyrics already up online

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Data geek words - an English/Spanish vocabulary list

17 June 2013

I'm preparing for tonight's Datatón, and have been looking up lots of words in Spanish that I've never come across. True to language-student form, I've made myself a vocabulary list of data/internet/programming/punctuation words...

Data geek vocabulary list

to select - seleccionar

to choose - elegir

to look for/search for - buscar

to move - mover

to type - escribir a la máquina

to open - abrir

to cut - cortar

to copy - copiar

to paste - pegar

to extract - sacar

to obtain - obtenir

to inspect - examinar

to substitute - sustituir

to return to - regresar

to click on - hacer clic

to move your mouse over - pasar el ratón sobre...

right click on - hacer click derecho, o hacer clic usando el botón derecho

to scroll up/down - desplazarse hacia arriba/abajo en el texto

code - el código

tag - una etiqueta (eg, html tag = una etiqueta de html o simplemente una etiqueta html)

attribute - un atributo

field (of data) - campo de datos

cell - la celda

column - la columna

row - la fila

tab - una pestaña

top of the page - la parte superior de la página

bottom of the page - la parte inferior de la página

spreadsheets - las hojas de cálculo

mouse - el ratón

datasets - los sets de datos

data repository - el repositorio de datos

brackets ( ) - los paréntesis

square brackets [ ] - los corchetes

curly brackets { } - las llaves

angle brackets < > - los paréntesis angulares o corchángulos

browser - el navegador de internet

forward slash / - barra

backwards slash \ - barra inverso

pipes/vertical bar | - la pleca

@ symbol - arroba

quotation marks ”; ”; - comillas

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