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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

What is the similarity between learning a natural language and learning a programming language?

Programming languages are usually taught to teenagers or adults, much like when learning a second language. This kind of learning is called explicit learning. In contrast, everyone’s first language was learned implicitly during childhood. Children do not receive explicit instructions on how to use language, but learn by observation and practice.  Part of what allows children to do this is the interactive nature of language:  people ask questions and answer them, tell others when they don’t understand and negotiate until they do understand (Levinson, 2014).  Programming languages, on the other hand, are passive: they carry out instructions and give error messages, but they don’t find the code interesting or boring and don’t ask the programmer questions. 

Computers. Source:

Because of this, it is sometimes difficult to think in a programming language, i.e., to formulate instructions comprehensively and unambiguously. The good news is that many programming languages use similar concepts and structures, since they all are based on the principles of computation. This means that it is often quite easy to learn a second programming language after learning the first. Learning a second natural language can take much more effort.  One thing is clear - it is becoming increasingly important to learn both kinds of language.

Answer by: Julia Udden, Harald Hammarström and Rick Jansen


Further Reading

The children who learned to use computers without teachers

Levinson, S. C. (2014). Pragmatics as the origin of recursion. In F. Lowenthal, & L. Lefebvre (Eds.), Language and recursion (pp. 3-13). Berlin: Springer. link

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This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

Questions and Answers

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