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.