Those who have studied a foreign or second language know that much of the time, we learn language with others. Teachers, classmates, tutors and native speakers all contribute to our ability to acquire a language that’s not native to us by providing additional resources to practice with and answering our questions along the way.
And just as the language-learning process isn’t a solo journey, neither is our reason for starting it in the first place. Often, we learn languages at least in part for others—perhaps to satisfy a teacher’s learning objectives, a job requirement, a relationship or to participate in a culture that interests us.
From the people involved in our linguistic pursuits to the physical spaces we study in, our unique environments can both help and hurt our ability to achieve and retain mastery of a language.
Like many people, I was in middle school when I had my first opportunity to formally study a foreign language. In order to satisfy a school requirement, I studied French for a single school year, sitting in class for one hour daily. I had no sincere interest in learning French at that time; I had only enrolled in order to get the credit I needed to move to the next grade.
I took this class with my closest friends, and I remember that we all approached learning the language nonchalantly. The stakes weren’t high; we goofed off during class time and teased our instructor incessantly. It was not, to say the least, an environment conducive to mastering the French language. I wasn’t studying French with or for others. I wasn’t even studying French for myself.
Later in my life, after spending a year teaching English in South Korea, I moved to Ecuador. I had the intention of staying in South America awhile, teaching English here and there, and gaining fluency in Spanish. I was enthusiastic about the language and eager to assimilate myself into Latin American culture.
In Ecuador, I was surrounded by native Spanish speakers, and many of them were willing to chat with me. Their feedback (in Spanish, of course) allowed me to bolster my listening skills and gauge how well I was achieving my communication goals. It was an environment rich with examples and ripe for language acquisition.
Because learning to code entails learning programming languages, I believe we can make the same claim about the importance of the coding environment as we have about the importance of the linguistic environment.
For example, many of us learn computer languages for others in the sense that we are typically learning them to work with a team, product, industry, or business. And we most certainly learn those languages with others, despite the lingering myth that software engineers work alone in dank basements, noshing on Cheetos and guzzling cans of Red Bull.
The reality is that writing code is a communal effort, one that includes collaboration and knowledge-sharing and pair programming and code reviews. The communities in which we write code create the environments that either help or hinder our continued acquisition of programming languages and technologies.