Your grammar teacher was right

Language skills - magnifying glass over the word "grammar"

Orthography: The art of writing words with the proper letters, according to accepted usage; correct spelling.

A few weeks ago, one of you (thanks, B) told me about a recent podcast with neuroscientist Chantel Prat. I’d read about her previous findings, but this included some new research. It’s relevant and interesting, and I want to share it with you.

The 2020 findings

Prat wanted to know if strong language skills play a role in learning to program. The idea is not new, but the data is very old.

Prat and her team tested the theory on a group of native English speakers, who had never learned to code.

First the participants had brain scans. Then they wrote tests to measure their language skills, numeracy, problem-solving and memory. (Numeracy is the basic ability to work with numbers – the maths version of literacy.)

After that, the participants took online Python lessons. As you would expect, they learned at different speeds, and with different rates of success.

The results showed that people with better problem-solving, memory and language skills, learned Python faster and more accurately.

(You can read more about that study if you want.)

Any language helps

In the October 2022 podcast, Prat shared some new, as yet unpublished, data.

Her team wanted to know if the link between language ability and coding is specific to English. This is relevant because most popular programming languages use English keywords.

So the team conducted the experiment again with more participants. Half of the participants spoke Chinese as their native language, and English as their second language. The other half were English monolingual speakers.

And the results? For Chinese English bilinguals, their Chinese skills were a stronger factor than their English skills in the ability to create code. (Although English was a bigger factor for debugging.)

Some conclusions

In the podcast, Prat appropriately describes coding as “the literacy of the future”.

Some fields need serious math skills, but that’s not true of most programming jobs. (I’ve only once used my very rusty trig knowledge in a tiny JavaScript program to calculate the number of roof tiles I needed.)

Prat’s research is good news, because too many people have hang-ups about maths. But it means we must pay more attention to language skills.

I’ve seen how people struggle to write code when they don’t pay attention to spelling. Now I feel (more) justified in my distaste for bad spelling and grammar. And less guilty about my addiction to Wordle.

I’d love to hear your comments on this topic.

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