GUEST COLUMN: Coding is not a foreign language

GUEST COLUMN: Coding is not a foreign language

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Gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte and Public Instruction Superintendent Elsie Arntzen want informatics courses in all Montana’s high-schools (Missoulian, May 18). They also want informatics (called “coding classes”) to count as “foreign language-requirements.” Why this attack on foreign languages, as if they were not threatened enough? Is it because of the strange tendency in today’s society to confuse “human language” with “computer language” — a mistake also shared by some UM administrators/faculty who call both “symbolic languages?”

As its name indicates, informatics’ “lingo” or “coding” is not a language, the way Arab, English, French or Tamil are. It is a “sub-language,” a “machine language,” based on the binary system on/off. Mathematics is a product of a human language. Its logic is contained within it, simplifying a language into a pragmatic code that can directly manipulate/control the world. Animals have communication codes, not languages as such. It is intellectual laziness, or a simplistic choice of metaphor, that makes us speak of “computer language,” or “animal language.” As opposed to computers, animals have feelings, but neither “speaks,” nor has an unconscious. Animals may have complex codes of communication (1000 plus clicks for whales, bird song patterns, etc.), but they do not share our linguistic ability — one of the few things which distinguishes us from animals.

Codes, as products of a human language, are under its dominance. They do not supersede, invalidate or replace language. Subsumed under a language, they are subordinated to its linguistic laws, which they partially obey, since their scope is limited and limiting. Codes, especially the way modernity encodes human communication, modify the way a culture/society uses its language, but codes do not replace languages. For instance, one did not write the same way after Gutenberg, but writing expanded. By the same token, typewriters and word-processors modified the way one writes.

What is new with the High-Tech, global economy is the imperialist and totalitarian danger at work behind the forceful application of informatics to all human communications. Postmodern capitalism, and the laws of the market, are becoming binary (e.g. algorithms dictating speculation in instant time). Its socio-political-cultural logic wants us to tune in and obey the drumbeat of machine-coding by dehumanizing communication and reducing human languages to codes governed by informatics, behaviorist brain-psychology, and genetics. If unopposed, the multiple (and contradictory) ways of human thinking will be reduced to what the French call the “pensée unique” (one-way type of thinking or tunnel-vision). If this dystopic reductionism wins, most people will have 1000 friends on Facebook with 46 sex-identity choices, sexual intercourse via hyper-virtual partners (à la The Matrix), and will read Sanskrit poetry (if they read at all) via electronic translation: a cheesy world of Velveeta, sign-images, ersatz, viral emptiness, and monolinguism, as in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

To equate a language to a code is a product of positivism that (negatively) reduces everything human (culture, politics, societies, languages) to the logic of a code (genes, electro-chemical brain patterns…)--easier to control/manipulate than human languages. This reductionism is a simplistic move, anti-humanist at its core. It ignores its political bias by denying the complexity of human communications. Is it a coincidence that there is a computer program called Plato--the Greek philosopher who planned to exclude poets from the City?

A grocery list in Russian (code-like), receives fair treatment from Google. But the electronic translator becomes a traitor when dealing with language’s higher functions (poetry, irony, philosophy, literary texts … ).

Replacing foreign language classes with “coding classes” is detrimental to the goals of today’s “global education for the 21rst century,” especially when the humanities (analyzing/cultivating human languages) are under attack by corporate utilitarianism, philistine opportunism, and expedient fiscal short-sightedness. In Montana schools, foreign languages classes (and teachers) have been drastically been cut. This wearisome trend does not bode well for Humanities’ future. Gianforte and Arntzen should support both informatics and linguistics, unless they want Montana to become a monolingual island for tourists.

The global world requires students to know informatics. It also requires their knowing Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, German, Russian…, and of course French, the mother of all lingua francas used in the Levant, Asia and Africa!

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Michel Valentin is a UM Professor and EPIS research member

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