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16 January 2023

Computing tips from learning a foreign language

Pete Dring profile image
Written by

Pete Dring | Secondary School Teacher (11-18)

I don’t normally make New Year’s resolutions: my desire to learn or do something new rarely translates into a discipline that lasts beyond the end of the Christmas holidays. This year however, a friend recently got me hooked on the language app Duolingo and I’m determined to be able earn more than just a patronising smile from my Ukrainian students for a mispronounced greeting.

Learning to read, write and speak a new language shares many of the same challenges (and rewards) as those you encounter when you learn to read, write and debug a new programming language. I’ve also often been impressed with approaches and strategies that MFL specialist teachers use when they have trained to teach computing outside of their specialist area.

This post aims to start a conversation about some of the pedagogical tricks and tips that computing teachers can glean from MFL departments.  Computing is still a relatively recent subject in terms of pedagogy in primary and secondary schools and I’m convinced that languages teachers maintain a wealth of experience especially when it comes to persuading students of all levels of interest and ability that they can (and want to) excel in their subject.

1: Gamification of learning

If you’ve tried Duolingo you’ll know that once you start a course, you’re drawn in by cartoon animations which celebrate your achievements and encourage you to maintain a streak by practising every day. Your friends are encouraged to “hi five” your accomplishments and you can compete against classmates and family members. Mistakes that you make automatically and instantly become personalised lessons with opportunities to practice in order to accrue as many points as possible.

The end result is that you want to succeed because success is broken down into bite-sized chunks that you can achieve, celebrate, consolidate and share.

I’ve tried to incorporate some aspects of gamification into the weekly python challenges on where students can get instant feedback as they compete against each other to earn points by reading, writing, running and debugging python code but Duolingo’s user experience is much more engaging. I’m interested to hear your experiences (positive and negative) of other gamified computing resources.

2: Repetition and reinforcement

Whilst I didn’t particularly enjoy regurgitating French verb endings when I was a student, I am struck by how many times pupils were (and are) encouraged to repeat and revisit all new vocabulary in a variety of different scenarios. I know that I’ve been guilty of assuming that my students have “done” iteration after just one introductory lesson on for and while loops in python. This seems more and more ironic as I consider the lack of repetition of both concept and content for students. I really like the way Duolingo throws in content from previous “lessons” and repeats questions multiple times on multiple occasions. I think this can be powerfully effective, especially when exploring the overlap between theory and practical in computing lessons so that students revisit and apply knowledge, understanding and skills to gradually make real progress over time.

3: Carefully scoped progression

When a language teacher introduces a new word, they are very good at gradually exposing students to the many different ways it can be used, only using tenses and vocabulary that students are already familiar with.  Examples and scaffolded resources are used before students are expected (and able) to write a story in their new language. I think this is even more important when learning a new programming language. Frameworks like PRIMM can really help scaffold learning but we still need to be careful to only change one thing at a time between each examples and activity so that there’s a shallow enough learning curve for students to maintain a sense of familiarity and confidence.

If any subject can capitalise on data analytics and AI to generate personalised learning content, it should be Computer Science. Large language models such as Open AI’s ChatCPT are designed to be integrated into other tools so I look forward to seeing a proliferation of gamified learning tools designed to engage and support students with both theory and practical programming components of CS.

Have you learnt another spoken language? How did your experience compare with learning to read and write program code? Do you have any thoughts on how we computing teachers can learn from other subjects (or how they can learn from us?!)

Do join the conversation on the CAS forums: I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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