The Babbel Blog

language learning in the digital age

Does code count as a language?

Posted on November 20, 2008 by

The following statement of Kristian over at web-translations made me wonder. He was writing about how much is too much in language learning, and ends with the following: “As for me, well, I speak 6 languages…English, French, small talk, MSN speak, some basic programming languages (do they count? They should as they have strict syntax like any other language) and, of course, the language of Luurve.”

Yes, what about “code”? Does it count? There are several dozens of important programming languages and many more derived dialects plus some pidgin codes. And one would think, well, you don’t speak them literally, you hack them into the keyboard. But there are stories about conferences with lots of tech geeks where insider jokes and whole presentations consists just of spoken code. Over here for example, some programmer wishes to speak code.

“I was having a conversation with my boss a week ago, and I had a lot of trouble expressing myself. I think the reason I can’t communicate is because I spend 14 hours a day programming. When it comes to code, I’m multilingual. But for speech, I’m absolutely useless. “Here, this.. thingy.. goes.. here.. into.. this.”. A co-worker came into my office an hour ago, and asked me ‘Should I be.. doing.. this.. thing?’ and then wrote some code on the whiteboard. My response was ‘No no, you should use the run-time class macro.’. The ‘run-time class’ macro? That’s how it came out in speech, but what I said was ‘RUNTIME_CLASS macro’.”

Though it is English, many people won’t understand the meaning of “runtime_class”. Yes, Kristian is right, there is a syntax behind it, but it follows another logic than the spoken language that the code is based on. Karthik Hariharan gives a good explanation in a comment to this post, why for him code doesn’t count as a “real” language: “I think that there’s a fundamental difference in the usage of a programming language versus a spoken/written language. A programming language is a tool to accomplish a task, while a spoken language is a medium for communication.”


the difference between programming languages and languages comes from the complexity, not the principle. that´s why I think, it´s nearly the same.
it depends on what you call fundamental, complexity isn´t, as far as I´m concerned:
“programming language is” “a medium to communicate” with machines,
” while a spoken language is” “a tool to accomplish a task” of communicating with humans

As a programmer who has learned many programming languages over the years and is now trying to learn a foreign language, let me tell you that it is much easier to pick up a programming language than a human language. Programming languages only require you to learn maybe 30-70 keywords, and you need to learn about the syntax too. If it’s your first programming language then you will need to learn programming concepts. But all of these are usually pretty regular. With human language you need to learn thousands of new words, learn new syntax which may conflict with how you think in your native language. You needto learn pronunciation. You need to learn conjugation and declension, and on top of all that you need to learn the irregularities.

As with anything, practice makes perfect for programming and for human languages, but I don’t think programming languages count as “real” languages.

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