Myths of 'Fluency'

Myths of 'Fluency'

On languages—computer and human—and how we learn them

5 posts, 5 years worth of learnings. Posts about mistakes I made, explained, so they need not be repeated. 15-ish mins reading time each. Bargain.

What I learned about:

I begin this story with a conversation I had several years ago with a friend. She was asking me what my boyfriend did for a living:

Friend: “So, what does Nick do?”

Me: “Oh, he’s a coder.”

Friend: “A what?”

Me: “A coder. A programmer.”

Friend: “? Still no… sorry!”

Me: “A software engineer?”

Friend: [Puzzled face]

Me: “He writes code in a language that tells computers what they should do.”

Friend: “That’s a job?”

Both my friend and I studied languages, history, and literature at university. When we had this conversation, she was preparing for a career in the arts and I had been working for Open Knowledge for about a year. I was spending every day in the company of the aforementioned ‘coders’.

This example is extreme, even slightly amusing to those of us who work in technology. But it highlights something worrying: a humanities student might not even realise technology career paths exist, let alone that there might opportunities there for them*.

*I am by no means suggesting that the friend in question would have been happier or better off in technology. I use this example to highlight that the option had never even crossed her mind.

Serendipity lends a hand

What I used to think

You have to decide early if you want to work in tech, and tailor your career towards it, or you will never catch up.

I had become curious about technology more by serendipity than anything else.

A couple of friends who were studying scientific subjects mentioned that they were studying code. My brother wanted to be a computer games designer.

I had no mental model of what exactly ‘coding’ was. I couldn’t even imagine it. I had never seen my friends or my brother actually coding. Code was a set of secret incantations that I wouldn’t have recognised if it punched me in the face.

The ability to write code was a lump. A bulk-buy. People could or they couldn’t. It didn’t occur to me for a minute that I might be able do something like build a website. At least, not without investing my entire life and career to do it.


I peeked under the hood

What I think now

There is a continuum of skills in tech which starts with something you can learn in a couple of hours.

My faculty offered a Certificate in Humanities Computing for Languages (CHUCOL), that promised to teach me how to build a website. Since this was apparently an impossible task and I am a relentlessly stubborn human being, I took the course. I was one of only a handful of my year that did.

Taking CHUCOL was probably one of the best decisions I made in my final year at university. The course was how I learned about Creative Commons Licences. The first time I used Audacity to edit a podcast. It was the first time I had ever seen raw HTML or CSS.

If I hadn’t seen under the hood that once, if I hadn’t had the chance to see that technology was not an overwhelming beast of mythical proportions, I’m not sure I would have picked it up later. I am particularly grateful to Mel, the course leader, who has the patience of a saint. She created a safe space where I could ask “ridiculous” questions.

But it wasn’t an easy decision to stick with the course. I had to do it on top of my other studies. I was in my final year, stressed and wanting to do well. I had to make a call between an internationally recognised qualification (my degree) and a random certificate for skills I wasn’t sure I would use. I nearly dropped out several times.

How does this musician know how to code?

What I used to think

You study dentistry, and become a dentist.

You study computer science, and work with computers.

You study for a degree in the humanities, and you acquire ‘flexible skills’, but absolutely no idea where to apply them.

When I left university I started working for the Open Knowledge Foundation. One thing puzzled early on: of all of the coders who were working there, only one or two had a degree in computer science. We had a media scientist, people from traditional science backgrounds, and some musicians.

The scientists I could understand: they had been taught some code as part of their degree. But how did the musicians and the media scientist know so much more about coding than I did?

I assumed that programming was an advanced and arcane technical art. Surely the only way to acquire such skills was through a formal educational process?

What I think now

There is no ‘right’ career path into tech.

The idea that programming requires innate talent and time investments far beyond other specialist skills is a pernicious myth (See Jacob Kaplan-Moss’s great keynote on the ‘talent myth’) that serves to exclude countless people from the sector.

If you can learn French, you can learn to program. If you can crochet, you can learn to program. If you can bring order to a chaotic organisation, you can learn to program. That’s not to say you should, or even that you should want to. But the idea that you cannot because you have missed out on the initiation rites that should have started when you were eight years old? That’s rubbish.

You can wait for someone to give you a certificate, or you can just get on with it. The industry currently favours those who do the latter.

Some Myths about Fluency

What I used to think

Fluent = Perfect

I always hesitated to call myself a fluent Russian speaker because I know that I make mistakes. I know at the same time that a native speaker makes mistakes. I make mistakes in my mother tongue.

What I think now

‘Fluency’ comes from the Latin ‘fluere’: to flow. Someone who speaks a language fluently speaks flowingly.

A friend of mine, Zara Rahman, has written about her process for learning German. She has never had a lesson and has picked up everything she knows from context and conversation in an incredibly short time. I, on the other hand, have had several hundreds of hours of German tuition in my life and have a degree in it. I can recite grammar tables from memory and my vocabulary-list-fed brain contains many exciting words such as Schnabeltier and Igelschnitt.

Yet Zara speaks more ‘fluently’ than me. Perhaps I speak more grammatically, but her language definitely flows more. This is possibly because she doesn’t have to wade through the amount of clutter that I have in my head, or possibly because a conversational context has been central to her learning process.

“The Myths of Fluency” by the language learning service Babbel is one of the best explanations of how people use the term incorrectly that I have found. Someone is ‘fluent’ within a particular context. Zara is fluent in conversational German. I guess I am too, but it still strains my brain to speak…

My language skills were greenhouse-grown with a lot of fertiliser, and later socialised. Zara’s are organic. While neither of our approaches is wrong, Zara’s is definitely faster.

And when ported to code, Zara’s approach to learning is far closer to how most people in the industry have acquired their skills.

I find it surprising that we do not use the term “fluent” anywhere near as much for programming languages as we do for human ones. I am torn as to whether increased use of this term would have a positive or negative effect.

My false concept of ‘fluency’ was a barrier for me for a long time. I wouldn’t apply for a job which stipulated ‘fluency’ in a language in case I was not good enough. The only thing that eventually helped was getting qualifications which allowed me to assess how good I was. If I waited to find such qualifications for programming, I would be waiting a long time.

Computer says no

Question: What is the difference between knowing some HTML/CSS/JavaScript, and being a front-end developer?

Answer: The confidence to apply a professional label to oneself.

You are unlikely to get any meaningful certificates for coding any time soon. The good news is you don’t need any: you can progress just by trying things.

With a human language, you are going to get yourself into all kinds of scrapes. You will say embarrassing things, insult people, and buy a chicken when you wanted some cheese. You’ll make mistakes with computers too. Most of the time, the worst thing that is going to happen is:

When you start out, you’ll get a long string of errors. Over time, you will learn how to interpret and correct them, and gradually the list will get shorter. But don’t imagine that the best programmers never make mistakes.

Everybody makes mistakes. Even when they are fluent.

I am always delighted to hear from people - particularly linguists or humanities students - who are contemplating career in technology. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some experiences.

Drop me a line on lucy [at] techtohuman [dot] com or on Twitter.

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