Coding: A Language Skill or Math Knowledge?

August 3, 2021


The human mind is gifted with a remarkable ability to handle novel cognitive skills such as reading, writing, and scientific logic. Humanity has recently produced another strong cognitive tool: Computer programming. However, little is known about the cognitive and neurological systems that underpin computer programming abilities. What is more important in coding? Great language skills or in-depth knowledge of math? Researchers are trying to simplify the process of teaching and learning how to code by answering this question.


Schools of Thought on Coding

To find the answer to this question, first we should find the answer to another one: How does our brain process the code? Does our brain process it like a natural language or does it treat it like a math problem? Finding the answer to this question has a lot of educational benefits too. It provides us with valuable information about the best methods of teaching programming. Right now, there are two schools of thought on coding. One school of thought believes that you must be a good mathematician in order to become a successful programmer. Since programs need formulas and algorithms to produce an output. The second school of thought contends that language abilities are more important because of the similarities between code and language. As coding requires specific grammar and syntax.


Who Can Learn Coding?

We have grown up with the idea that coding is so hard and complex that only elites can learn it. Since we’re not good at teaching programming, scientists should find out which part of the brain is responsible for it. The instructors don’t know the best approach. The ones learning to code are confused too. Those who are not good at foreign languages presume coding is like a natural language. They assume that learning to code is as hard as learning a new language. Therefore, they avoid it. Another group is people who think that coding needs thorough math knowledge. Solving math problems is also a challenge for them. This group avoids coding too. But which group is right? People with bad language skills or those with no math knowledge? Aren’t they meant to code?

A lot of schools around the globe have added programming to their course list. Some of them let students choose a coding language as a foreign language like French or Spanish. So, they teach programming as if it is a natural language. Although this method might attract more individuals to this field, it’s not a good teaching approach. As mentioned above, some people have the mistaken idea that programming is similar to mathematics. But the truth is that they should not be taught the same way.


Conducted Research

Aside from the ones who are trying to learn how to code, neuroscientists are particularly interested in this dispute too. Computer programming has only been around for a few decades. Therefore, no distinct section of the brain has evolved to handle it. Scientists reasoned that it must rely on some pre-existing cognitive function in our brains. Two brain systems appeared to be potentially responsible: the brain’s language systemandthe system that deals with complicated cognitive activities like learning math. Various researches have been conducted to reveal the mystery of our brain.

If you are interested in coding but your poor math skills prevent you from learning it, don’t worry. According to research carried out at Washington University, coding is not as similar to math as was thought. Chantel Prat, a Washington University professor, believes that language skills are more important in learning to code. But recent research conducted at MIT proves otherwise. It reveals that when reading a code, the language region of the brain responds poorly. MIT neuroscientists conducted research on already skilled coders to measure their brain activity. Inside an MRI scanner, participants completed a program comprehension challenge. Scientists found out that programming depends on neither math nor language skills. They revealed that learning to code requires more than just arithmetic or language skills. In fact, it involves a larger section of the brain known as the “multiple demand network”.


Is Coding All About Math?

Multiple demand network (MDN) is often responsible for tasks that require keeping a vast amount of information in mind. In fact, it enables us to do a wide range of mental tasks. Multiple demand network is also responsible for complex cognitive tasks like solving math problems or crossword puzzles. But this does not mean that coding is all about math. Coding does not exactly replicate the cognitive demands of mathematics. Although reading computer code activates MDN, it concerns different parts of the network than math or logic problems do. Math and logic problems rely heavily on the left hemisphere’s multiple demand regions. But reading computer code appears to activate both the left and right sides of the multiple demand network. This finding contradicts the theory that math and coding use the same brain mechanisms.



Previously conducted research used to suggest that programming is a kind of language. But according to new studies, teaching programming as a foreign language may not be the most efficient educational approach. These studies suggest that programming is a unique and complex process for the brain. Therefore, it can’t be categorized into language or logic groups.







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