Is learning a programming language like becoming bilingual?
Fascinating question! Bilingual people have some additional executive control. Does learning a programming language give a similar benefit in executive control? The study described below is suggestive but not conclusive. If we could find evidence for it, it would be another benefit of learning to program.
If computer programming languages are languages, then people who spoke one language and could programme to a high standard should be bilingual. Research has suggested that bilingual people perform faster than monolingual people at tasks requiring executive control – that is, tasks involving the ability to pay attention to important information and ignore irrelevant information (for a review of the “robust” evidence for this, see Hilchey & Klein, 2011). So, I set out to find out whether computer programmers were better at these tasks too. It is thought that the bilingual advantage is the result of the effort involved in keeping two languages separate in the brain and deciding which one to use. I noticed that novice computer programmers have difficulty in controlling “transfer” from English to programming languages (e.g. expecting the command “while” to imply continuous checking; see Soloway and Spohrer, 1989), so it seemed plausible that something similar might occur through the learning of programming languages.