The best class I took in college was on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Until that point, I had avoided philosophy of language as simply being too esoteric and hermetic to be of use. David Pears, a prodigious yet modest and approachable figure visiting from Oxford, changed my mind. In large part because of Pears’ instruction, Wittgenstein’s philosophy has been directly relevant to my thinking about computer science, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science. When other scholars were thinking that language and thought could be reduced to a universal, logical language, Wittgenstein turned the matter to practical questions and raised incredibly inconvenient questions that gained traction in artificial intelligence in the 1970s, 40 years after he was working on them.
Great article. I found this paragraph especially interesting:
Here’s one example. The French equivalents for here and there are ici and lÃ respectively. But if I point to a pen and say, “The pen is here,” the French equivalent is not “Le stylo est ici,” but “Le stylo est lÃ .” In French, lÃ is always used to refer to a specific place or position, while in English here or there can both work. This rule is so obscure I never learned it in French classes, but obviously all native speakers learn it because no one ever uses it differently. It could just as easily be the other way round, but it’s not. The situation is not arbitrary, but the way in which language carves up the interaction between mind and world varies in such a way that French speakers recognize certain practices as right or wrong in a different way than English speakers do. This may seem a trivial point, until you have to program a computer to translate “I pointed to Paris on the map and said, ‘She is here.’ ” into French – at which point it becomes a nightmare. (If you are a translator, on the other hand, this is great news.)
Aside from the obvious fact that I can relate to the remark about translators, the author touches upon something that I benefit from every day. I always feel that being multilingual (just Dutch, English, German, some French, and a basic grasp of ancient Greek and Latin – relatively limited when compared to true multilinguals) makes it easier for me to express myself. Being able to use words, concepts, ideas, structures, and conventions from foreign languages and incorporate them into my Dutch – even if only in my inner monologue – allows me to describe objects, concepts, and situations in a more fine-grained, and therefore, more accurate manner (accurate to my perception, which does not mean “more correct” in more absolute terms).
I appreciate how ridiculously pretentious this sounds, but I do firmly believe this is true: being able to understand, read, write, and speak multiple language makes me better at language.
I’m no programmer – something I like to repeat as often as I can to make sure everyone knows where I’m coming from on the subject of programming – but I get the idea that programming is not very different in that regard. That is, being able to program in multiple programming languages will make you better at programming, and not just in the sense that you will be useful in more situations (you can find a job both as a Java and an Objective-C programmer, for instance), but also in the sense that knowledge and experience in programming language Abc will give you new and different insights into programming language Xyz, allowing you to use a certain language in more unconventional ways that people with knowledge of fewer languages might not.
As much as language is an expression of culture, a programming language is an expression of how a computer works. Both contain within them invaluable knowledge that cannot be easily expressed in other languages – and as such, they are invaluable in preserving knowledge, both culturally and digitally.