Are computer languages really languages? Apparently, in the 70s and 80s, various universities appeared to think so, as they allowed computer programming to count for the foreign language entry requirement.

According to Hulit and Howard (1993), languages must 1) convey meaning, through the words and the relationships between the words; 2) include concepts of different times and space, like yesterday or somewhere else; and 3) be “productive”, in that they allow us to say things that have never been said before. Kent L Norman’s book Cyberpsychology points out that these things are technically present in programming languages, which involve similar concepts of grammar and meaning. However, the structure of these languages are highly structured, and the communication is, essentially, one-way.

Of course, another difference is that talking to a computer doesn’t usually involve much actually talking or listening – it’s a reading and writing kind of conversation. But this recent neuroimaging study suggests that reading and writing ability is embedded in the language system, and processed in brain regions that were previously thought to specialise in spoken language only, so perhaps that’s not such a big deal.

So why does it matter whether or not the brain treats code as language? Well, Dr Ellen Bialystok and her colleagues have been conducting some very interesting research into the cognitive benefits of bilingualism which suggests that regularly switching between two different languages changes the structure and function of the brain. Bilingualism seems to improve executive function in the brain, delay age-related cognitive decline and may even protect against the onset of dementia.

What’s more, the Education Secretary recently promised to “pull every lever” to get young kids learning languages (warning: link contains large picture of Michael Gove). Why? He said:

“It is literally the case that learning languages makes you smarter. The neural networks in the brain strengthen as a result of language learning.”

So it seems to me that if learning to code has the same cognitive benefits as learning languages, the implications could be pretty interesting for primary education and the Coding for Kids campaign.

And that’s what I’m hoping to find out.

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