New Study Links Hi-Tech Success to Foreign Language Learning

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How Computer Programming Aptitude and Language Study are Related – Benefits of Learning A Foreign Language

What are the best-suited careers for people with language skills?

Teaching, translation, interpreting, journalism, international business… yeah, yeah, you know the list of old favorites.

Bet there’s one you haven’t thought of, though.

Computer programming.

That’s right!

University of Washington Study

A recent study from the University of Washington found that knowing second (third and fourth) languages can increase a person’s success at computer programming. People with natural capabilities for programming also know languages.

It also said that math ability – what you’d probably think is the most relevant discipline to computer programming – did not have a relation to strong programming ability, whereas the strongest programmers in their study also spoke multiple languages.

So, What’s the Link Between Foreign Language Learning and Programming?

It might sound odd, but when you look at it more closely, it makes sense. lists these skills that are useful for success in programming: attention to detail, logic, abstract thinking, patience, communication and empathy, long-term memory.

Sound familiar? That’s because language learners use these same skills every day.

When you can’t remember a word in your second language, you search your memorized bank of vocabulary for another way to explain it, to make sure your listener is still engaged and interested. This uses a bunch of the skills mentioned above.

Plus, language learners are used to learning and working within unfamiliar structures: even learning Dutch, a language closely related to English, needs knowledge of multiple grammatical rules.

Computer Science is In Demand

Foreign language learning and programming success study

We’re in the middle of a STEM craze because we’ve got unprecedented demand for tech-literate workers. Automation, developments in technology and the transfer of work to the online sphere has created a huge gap in knowledge, and lucrative careers are available for those who can fill the skills gaps.

This created an explosion in the number of computer science majors offered, which, unfortunately, are often offered at the expense of humanities courses. For example, the University of Montana recently consolidated six language majors into one broader major entitled “World Languages and Cultures”.

While schools work to fill the technology skills gap in the workforce, they use unnecessarily narrow definitions to measure students for their suitability in tech: they look for students who are good at math, logical, and with scientific mindsets. The study from the University of Washington gives fine reason to consider applicants with unorthodox backgrounds to fill places on much-sought-after computer science courses.

Language Teaching in Schools

Unfortunately, the school system doesn’t always embrace the variety of backgrounds that can produce a skilled techie.

Many schools, leaders, and educational organizations only recognize and accept the traditional routes into tech: that is, an aptitude for math and logic, backed up by qualifications.

Universities – especially in Europe – ask for undergrads to have studied math, science, or engineering in high school before beginning courses in computer technology.

This requirement at university level filters down into elementary and high schools, which then prioritize and fund STEM subjects over humanities and languages.

Here’s how that works in the USA and UK:


In the United States, although the specific curriculum varies by region, the common themes are:

  • High school students take four years of math, and or computing courses
  • Foreign languages are optional in some areas


The UK’s National Curriculum categorizes computing as a “Foundation” subject, that all schools must offer.

Languages are relegated to an “Optional” class, where schools are obliged to offer a minimum of one of the following: humanities, design and technology, arts and languages. So, it’s the principal’s responsibility to decide whether languages are offered at all.

Getting into Computer Science as a Back-Up: The Impact on Humanities

It’s easy to see why students would take up computer science, with a clear need for it in the workplace and with schools pushing STEM subjects throughout their school career.

But what about the students who aren’t sure what they want to do? There are plenty of those who exist. After all, how many people actually end up in the career they imagined at 16 years old?

It’s more sad news here for languages. Students are encouraged by educational leaders to study STEM as a backup or an insurance policy, a way of keeping their options open. The mindset is “there’ll always be a career in STEM, so getting into computer science will be a good failsafe”.

This creates elevated demand for STEM courses, because of the idea that specialized study in computer science is the only route to it as a career. As a result, funding favors math and technological disciplines, rather than humanities, and so humanities courses disappear.

If institutions recognized that language study is equally, if not more, efficient at producing great techies and coders, we could reverse this trend and push students to study what they want to. Right now, students see STEM as the ‘safe’ route into a well-paid career.

Foreign Languages and Programming Go Hand-in-Hand

When we focus on specializing in computer sciences, we don’t recognize the value of a broad education.

Think about the stereotype of a computer programmer: a socially awkward, robotic, and emotionally unintelligent man. They are great at what they do but are not well-rounded as people.

The comedies “Silicon Valley” and “The IT Crowd” are entire shows written around this stereotype!

Although that stereotype is an exaggeration, the underlying message is true: with a narrow, subject-specific education, a person’s ways of problem-solving are naturally limited.

A STEM student wouldn’t have the same diversity of ideas as someone who comes to coding from a languages background. Someone with training in other cultures and norms and who is used to thinking outside the box, just to get their point across.

Another key soft skill that language students have is one that many specialists in other disciplines lack: communication!

One of the benefits of language learning is that students can communicate their ideas succinctly with tact and discretion. What tech company wouldn’t want that kind of soft skill on their team?

Yes, we have more need than ever for tech-literate people to work in computing and technology. But we’re failing to recognize the different qualities that those with language and humanities studies can bring to those roles: flexibility, adaptability, organization, creativity, self-correction, and the ability to own and learn from mistakes.

Careers for Language Learners

We need to abandon the idea that humanities and computer science can’t benefit each other and recognize language students’ value by providing more access routes to the tech world.

As part of this, languages need a higher priority in education. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine agree and are in favor of returning to a greater balance between science and humanities.

In the meantime, keep learning your French past participles… you never know what tech career it can lead to!

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