This might be slightly off topic, but I'll risk it, as the site is about Programmers !

Programmers are good at constantly learning new programming languages, but how good are they at learning a new spoken language ? Have you taken up a foreign language (French/Spanish/etc) as an adult and mastered it? Was it easy?

I ask because I have been trying to learn French for quite some time now, and I'm still at the annoying "Je parle un peu de Française" stage. I've attended two French courses, one where the majority of the class were programmers, and one where they weren't and the difference in ability was quite apparent. Does a mathematical / logical inclination hinder learning a spoken language where grammar is not in ones and zeros? Or am I just transferring blame instead of simply accepting that I am not good with languages.

[It is important that you have not been taught the language in school, as early exposure really gives you the upper hand. I've picked up and got quite good at languages I've been exposed to under the age of 10.]

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    Most of us have a hard enough time communicating in our native language. Sep 29, 2010 at 18:22
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    Btw, your French sentence is grammatically wrong. It should be "Je parle un peu français.". No "de", no upper case "F", and no "e" at the end of the word ;) Sep 30, 2010 at 7:32
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    @Yann - Je suis stupide ;-)
    – Preets
    Sep 30, 2010 at 13:21
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    Here's the quote: "Besides a mathematical inclination, an exceptionally good mastery of one's native tongue is the most vital asset of a competent programmer." I've just been learning about this man here on Programmers (excepting perhaps an occasional cross-reference)---I missed him at UT by 5 years!
    – Mark C
    Oct 4, 2010 at 14:25
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about spoken language acquisition.
    – user40980
    Aug 16, 2013 at 0:39

7 Answers 7


I find it easy and fun to learn new languages! The only reason I'm any good at programming is that I've got a strong inclination toward language. All human languages are fundamentally the same, and not even vast differences in phonology, grammar, and vocabulary can get in the way of the fact that all people work in basically the same way.

I find it immensely rewarding to draw parallels between etymologies, to discover the underlying nature of what makes a language tick, and to learn how native speakers understand their own language. Not to mention that studying a wide variety of orthographies has given me great clerical accuracy, which is a big help in programming.

However, your mileage may vary—I'm a programmer because I'm a linguist, not the other way round, and you can become proficient at programming in many different ways.


Here are a few tips that I think can help programmers with language learning:

Natural languages are not programming languages. Natural languages do not have rules, but they do have patterns. If you notice a pattern, don't claim it's a rule and then complain about all of the exceptions. Linguistics is not a black-and-white field. I've noticed that people of a technical mindset get caught up in whether they're "correct" and lose sight of the fact that it's more important to be understood. Natural speech has inherent meaning that transcends literalism.

Learning a language is not about rote memorisation. No native speaker of Spanish says to himself "voy, vas, va, vamos, vais, van" to remember how to conjugate "to go". He just does it in running speech because he has developed a sense over time of what sounds right. Do not take a "phrasebook" approach to language learning: you will find yourself lost for the appropriate phrase because you won't be able to produce your own. Learning vocabulary is not the same as learning an API.

Natural languages are redundant and compressible, and you can use this to your advantage as a student. If you pronounce or spell something wrong, chances are you will still be understood. Look up the etymologies of words to get a sense of their deeper meaning. Having a sense of the language as it was is just as important as knowing the language as it is. It's okay to make some mistakes.

Step outside your comfort zone and experiment. Try to talk the way native speakers do. If you notice that you pronounce or articulate something differently, try to discern exactly how. If you don't understand everything someone says, it's okay to ask them to repeat themselves or explain. If you make a mistake, the worst that can happen is a misunderstanding, and if you're confident and outgoing then it turns into a funny situation rather than an awkward, embarrassing one. Have fun.

  • Nice! Finally a positive response. So, since you belong to both worlds, maybe you have a few tips for programmers trying to learn a foreign languages? Have you seen them making any "typical" mistakes that must be avoided while learning a new language? Or any techniques that work well for people in the programming field?
    – Preets
    Sep 29, 2010 at 22:06
  • Thank you! Your comments on spoken languages following patterns and not rules and that you can be "understood" despite being technically "incorrect" are very valuable! I'm going to try and break the black and white approach to learning a foreign language.
    – Preets
    Sep 30, 2010 at 13:30
  • though the first thing I am tempted to do is understand the difference between a pattern and a rule - from what I knew, you looked at a pattern and created a rule !
    – Preets
    Sep 30, 2010 at 13:31
  • Better than my answer... that last point is the hard one :)
    – Jay
    Sep 30, 2010 at 13:37
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    Natural languages do not have rules, but they do have patterns. If you notice a pattern, don't claim it's a rule and then complain about all of the exceptions. - +1 for that. It put language in perspective for me.
    – Maulrus
    Oct 29, 2010 at 2:54

I can only speak for myself, but I find it difficult to learn spoken languages (I attempted 2 semesters of Spanish in college) beyond the very basics. Some other posts have brought up the points about memorizing and practicing being very important to learning a new language, and I believe that to be true.

I would say this is the reason I do poorly; that is, I almost never memorize anything. Other developers may differ on this, but largely my approach is to favor the Why over the What. In calculus, I had a teacher scold me after taking a test. She had seen my derivation of a theorem in the margins, and claimed that I wouldn't have needed to do that kind of work during a test if I had memorized the theorem in the first place (or if I had done my homework.) I had to agree.

  • That is interesting, I have a similar problem with the "WHY". Its easy to follow rules, but I guess a spoken language has one too many to be learned on day one. Thanks for your input!
    – Preets
    Sep 29, 2010 at 21:38

Pour apprendre une langue, la meilleure solution c'est de pratiquer. L'ideal c'est te faire un ami avec qui tu peux correspondre tous les jours. J'ai appris l'anglais dans les livres de programmation, puis la prononciation en bossant a coté d'un irlandais.

  • @Pierre, Merci :) I just need to find a friend now who will tolerate my broken French. Its just that I started learning French with a bunch of friends, and surprisingly the non-programming friends are way ahead of me, and my programming colleagues are all pretty much stuck at bonjour & ca va ! Not a generalization, but just an observation !
    – Preets
    Sep 29, 2010 at 18:14
  • Je ne comprends pas l'anglais. Pourrais-tu reécrire en français?
    – user2567
    Sep 29, 2010 at 18:16
  • Pardon, "Je parle un peu de Française" ;-)
    – Preets
    Sep 29, 2010 at 18:23
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    Real programmers write translation programs instead of learning new spoken languages. :P Sep 29, 2010 at 18:58
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    Real programmers take the lazy way out and use the Google Translate API. ;)
    – Adam Lear
    Sep 29, 2010 at 20:17

I think it mostly depends on the person. But here's my own experiences as a programmer from England, living and working in Germany.

I think and learn very logically, if the logic of something is apparent, or if I can learn the rule to how something works, I can remember it easily. This has made learning German grammar quite a bit easier for me then maybe someone who learns just the words and learns grammar through association.

However while I find it easy to work with algorithms and maths, I struggle when working with art and design. Likewise in spoken communication, I am proficient in communicating, but lack somewhat when it comes to the more poetic side of language and also in remembering names (especially when the words are not very well documented and the choice of which to use must be learned through observation (i.e. (in German) menschen/leute raum/zimmer gleich/bald) or when words appear to be equivalent to English words, but differ in usage (fertig/bereit).

Finding the grammar easier has made things much easier for me, it means that I have the structure of the sentences almost correct, and only need practice and frequent use of the dictionary and friends to learn the vocabulary (thankfully, I'm finding Germans to be generally very forgiving of mistakes, particularly when it comes to irregular grammar).

/* Sorry in advance for any grammatical mistakes in the above, I need sleep. */

  • @Tael, I wish the logic of the French language was apparent to me. You're from England, so you know what I'm talking about ;-) I guess I am just going to have to try harder learning the grammar.
    – Preets
    Sep 29, 2010 at 22:13

I don't know whether programmers are good at learning foreign languages, but I know that programming and computers in general helped me a lot learning the foreign language I am most proficient in – English.

Yes, I was taught some English in high school, but I was studying German much earlier and I would have problems formulating a simple sentence in that language now. That's because I ever used German only in school. I think the most important thing about learning a foreign language is to actually use it, not just visit a class once a week. Once you know the basics, start reading news sites, watch TV series (watching TV in a foreign language is much easier with subtitles, even if they are in that language), chat with people, etc.


I am absolutely horrible at foreign languages.

I am currently trying to learn Chinese (mandarin). I'm starting my 4th year of classes, once a week. And I still can't understand a lick of Chinese spoken by a native. It's driving me crazy.

I had 4 years of French in high school. I wouldn't have been able to recall the entire sentence "Je parle un peu de Française", but I know what it means now that I see it. I have no idea what that other answer says :)

I think it's because languages are mostly memorization. Basic grammar is simple, but to learn vocabulary is just memorize, memorize, memorize. Programmers (and Scientists and Engineers, etc.) tend to understand things by modeling behavior in their mind, rather than memorizing facts. I think most other people, and schooling teach people to be "smart" by memorizing facts, and thus end up better at the language thing.

  • @Jay, Thanks for your input, I'm glad I have company !
    – Preets
    Sep 29, 2010 at 21:09
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    @Jay, Just wanted to add, if it helps - A friend of mine simply mugged up a lot of sentences and practiced and practiced with anyone he met. Now in the beginning he looked silly because he didn't know what a verb was couldn't care less if it was regular / past / present. He just blurted stuff out. Two years down the line he speaks fluent French. If only I could learn that way :-/
    – Preets
    Sep 29, 2010 at 21:32
  • You probably have difficulty learning foreign languages because you think learning vocabulary is about memorisation.
    – Jon Purdy
    Sep 29, 2010 at 21:38
  • @Jon, It isn't? When I'm given a group of sentences, like - how are you / my name is / can you help me / etc .. it seems like one has to mug it up (before you reach the lessons where you learn all the verbs associated with it) Ain't that true? I could memorize nouns, but memorizing sentences and reciting them makes me very uncomfortable. I just don't feel "confident". I sound like a cry baby !
    – Preets
    Sep 29, 2010 at 21:53
  • @Preets: If you try to memorise information without really understanding how it's put together, you will surely fail, or at least not truly learn it. It's more about pattern recognition: observing the nuances of how a word is used imbues it with its own unique meaning, and forces your brain to treat it as its own entity, not defined in terms of your native tongue.
    – Jon Purdy
    Sep 29, 2010 at 22:03

They can be if they use their skills to develop personal language learning tools (though this is an augmentation and not a substitute for continual practice with native speakers and text).

I've written many programs for personal and shared use in this field. The most successful quantitative data that I have is that users (me included) of a Spanish vocabulary flashcard web app I cobbled together learn on average 7+ new words every day during the first 3 months of use (calculated months later to include long-term retention). It's one of the ugliest, hackiest things I ever wrote, but easily the most rewarding (for the conversation and literature I am now able to enjoy).

Particularly, having constant statistics can be a great motivation for regular study and practice (as I'm sure users of these websites will know!) and helps build confidence. It's also great to be able to mine the user data to help better target your other study and practice.

(Also, general language learning tip: spend the majority of your time on verbs and everything else will fall into place.)

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