The Tech Industry’s Tunnel Vision about Coding and Language

In an interview with The Guardian, Tim Cook has reiterated his views on “coding,” and how important it is for children to learn to code.

I think if you had to make a choice, it’s more important to learn coding than a foreign language. I know people who disagree with me on that. But coding is a global language; it’s the way you can converse with 7 billion people.

This sort of misguided statement is surprising from someone as intelligent as Mr. Cook. I’ve mentioned before how Apple’s focus on coding is limiting, but this latest statement is just wrong.

Mr. Cook assumes that everyone in the world wants to become technical drones, and apparently isn’t aware of the benefits of learning foreign languages. It is thought that more than 50% of people in the world are at least bilingual, with many speaking and understanding more than two languages. Learning a language leads to all sorts of cognitive benefits, and kids who learn languages generally do better in other subjects as well. I don’t know if Mr. Cook speaks a foreign language, but his attitude about language is typically American.

The tech industry wants people to think that the only language to learn is C; no, C+; no, C++; no Swift. Well, they change all the time. I agree with Mr. Cook that coding teaches people logic and many other skills, but suggesting that it allows you to converse with 7 billion people is Trumpian foolishness. (If you follow Mr. Cook on Twitter, you’ll notice that he occasionally posts tweets in languages other than English. His minions clearly give him the texts, but it’s surprising that he doesn’t post code to converse with his Twitter followers.)

I’ve always felt that the most important advantage of learning a foreign language is that you learn that things can be different; that the way you look at and describe the world is different from the way other people, in other countries and cultures, do. I grew up in New York City, then spent most of my adult life in France, and now live in the UK. I also spent a year in Norway, and studied Chinese for a while. Each of these languages, and each of these life experiences, opened my mind and allowed me to learn that my way of doing things, the way I was taught in my native country, is not the only way. It taught me to respect difference, and have more empathy for people. And I raised a bilingual child, who, from the time he started speaking, has had two ways of apprehending the world. (I also taught English as a foreign language for a number of years, and have a Master’s degree in the subject, so I am well aware of the many benefits of learning languages.)

No, coding is not a global language, you can’t talk to people with if – then statements. It’s a tool, not a means of communication. This sort of attitude is dangerous; not only because it neglects the other elements needed in tech – art and design, empathy and understanding – but it dumbs down the world and attempts to turn kids into drones. You can converse with far more people through music and art than you will ever be able to by learning code. And it’s a shame that Mr. Cook ignores that.

Oh, and, by the way, Mr. Cook, those developers you hire from India, China, Germany, Brazil, and other countries? They can only work for you because they learned a foreign language: English.

Update: the day after I posted this article, The Guardian has an article entitled The joys and benefits of bilingualism, discussing in more detail the benefits to language learning that I highlight above. The author begins by discussing his own experience raising bilingual children, then looks at the research that shows that bilingualism is beneficial in many ways.

12 thoughts on “The Tech Industry’s Tunnel Vision about Coding and Language

  1. Mr. Cook is not particularly intelligent, what ever makes you think that? He is a shrewd corporate political that is all. This requires mere cleverness, not high intelligence. He, like many in the Valley, is not even particularly well educated either–if you exclude mere technical training. In some sense of the word, he is barely civilized.

    Several things that are very strange about this: 1) that we somehow hang on the notions of a particular industry, as if the software industry or its sector is somehow the major arbiter of our economic future. I can remember when the highest paid jobs in the county were in the Steel industry. Where would we be if we had listen to them to guide our children’s educations? Why on earth would we listen to a non-entity like Cook or the manufactures of Cell phones to set the direction of our civilization? (and, yes, in the broader view of our civilization, Cook is definately a non-entity2) that we in particular listen to someone from Apple, of all people who have one of the more error prone software engineering reputation and has rather hindbound software engineering process and practice (and, no, Apple is not a great technical innovator, that mostly do good industrial design based on other people’s work), 3) it is reasonable to assume that one of the areas where AI will really come to the fore is code generation. There is no reason to assume that for the vast majority of tasks that their will even be human programmers in 15 years.

    On top of that is the fact that most young people already know the rudiments of programming by the time they get into college, and this has been true for some years. Even poetry majors can handle basic task. There is this modern myth that programming is this demanding and profound intellectual task, or even a satisfying one. For the most part is not. This is, after all, why they can exploit the international sweatshops of foreign grunt programmers.

    Lastly, SV really has not been “innovating” for quite sometime: they have been merely refining, repurposing and rehashing the technical advances of the prior generations of technologists. It is a sad turn of events that we now have as our tech industry “leaders” firms that provide things like search engines, cell phones and social networks–this shows just how rotten, trivial, superficial and decadent our tech sector has become.

    Cook’s comment demonstrate just how loony, ill-educated and, above all, arrogant these SV types are. Much of their success can be attributed to the free money that the truly treasonous and corrupt FED policies of the last 15 years have handed this bunch, and the terrible centralization of capital in some of the most corrupt rent seekers in our industrial history–rent seekers who are incapable of real innovation or real competition.

    Tunnel vision? Perhaps. More like a wholly corrupt, and perverse world view. We would be better off breaking up companies like Apple, Amazon, FB and Twitter, radically reforming FED policies, reforming our privacy laws and clawing back some of the monies this bunch of arrogant pirates and their ilk have managed to bilk from the American people. They amount to little more than a cartel, and they are hurting the nation.

    Maybe then we could get back to real, meaningful innovation, tackle real problems, face the big challenges, and thus regain the technological leadership we once had. We will not do it with this bunch “leading” us.

    You can take it to the bank that anything Cook thinks is good for America is anything but that.

  2. It’s a pity that the term “computer language” ever gained widespread use. It embraces and extends a poor metaphor and countless misunderstandings. No one converses in a computer language, no even with someone in the next cubicle. People may share code, but they converse and communicate in human languages.

    • investor jim Rodgers once said (10 years ago?)my children have to learn two languages: Mandarin and ‘computer’.

      • But did he mean coding, or simply the language of computer interfaces (as a user)? I suspect he meant the latter.

  3. Some excellent points here (and in Guardian article linked too) Kirk.
    I think that this “everybody can (and should) code” attitude is just another form of marketing. On the one hand, yeah, there may be some people who wouldn’t have started programming without all that campaign. On the other – today it’s really easy to start programming. In fact it’s easier than ever before, provided one knows English. Maybe because all (or almost all) computer languages’ commands are based on English words. Imagine if computer languages were based on something else like Klingon or Finnish or Mandarin.
    I think that this “no second language needed” is a bit of an American thing. From what I’ve heard from some young Americans (in their 20s) learning languages isn’t really a thing in American schools. In Europe things look a little different because people move around, trade with their neighbors and there’s often need to know what other person is saying.
    I think I can consider myself bilingual (Polish is my mother tongue and I have Cambridge Advanced in English). Learning English enabled me to do things I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish otherwise – I can experience culture (books, movies, games etc.) in its original form, it allowed me to study and work abroad. Learning how to program wouldn’t have allowed me anything rather than getting a job with a decent salary (which isn’t a bad thing but that’s just about it). Bill Gates (we can agree he’s a successful programmer, even here on Apple-centered blog, can’t we?) had said that he feels stupid not knowing any modern foreign languages.
    And as Kirk has said, the knowledge of second language really enables seeing things from another perspective.

  4. You are blowing this out of proportion. First of all, he says, “…if you had to make a choice…” So right there, you’re tying his hands from saying it would be of benefit to learn both.

    But even if there’s a choice, he’s correct. You learn German, you can reach a minuscule part of the planet (when I was a kid the medical profession tended to like German, so there’s that). You learn to code, you can hire a company to localize the app in many languages. So for serving the greatest number of people, coding can help one reach a larger audience. Even China has two languages. So you have to translate into those to get even a significant majority of the population there. My own work is translated into six languages (both Chinese by the way) and I license photos for worldwide rights. And we only reach a potential majority of the world’s population because we include English, Spanish, French, and both Chinese dialects (amongst some others).

    So with his hands tied what is he supposed to say? Sure, learn Latin and make the world a better place? Context is everything.

    And please apologize to him for comparing him to Trump. That bozo would say, “Who needs to talk to anyone but Americans?” Or even, “Learn to code and you can reach earthworms on Neptune! Please. Such a comparison is criminal.

    • You obviously didn’t read the article; I didn’t talk about localizing apps, I talked about the cognitive benefits one gets from learning languages.

  5. Excellent post.
    I suppose an argument could be made that by learning to code one learns how software is made and how computers operate. And given the central role of computers in contemporary society this knowledge is indispensable to an informed, engaged citizenry. But this is not the argument Tim Cook is making.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.