Math, culture and programming languages

Can a programmer’s background determine whether he’ll be a great programmer? By background, I mean his upbringing, the values learnt, his primary (and perhaps secondary) spoken/written language and so on.

I don’t know. However, I have arguments for and against the proposition. Let’s start with…

Learning to count

You think counting is easy? Apparently not. Recently I read a book, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. According to Gladwell, American children the age of four can, on average, count up to fifteen. Chinese children at that age can, on average, count up to forty.

His reasoning is that, the system of naming numbers is different in English and in Chinese.

For example, think about counting from twenty to thirty (I’m deliberately using the English form instead of the Arabic numerals to highlight the difference). You have twenty, twenty one, twenty two and so on till twenty nine and thirty. How about thirty to forty? Thirty, thirty one, thirty two and so on till thirty nine and forty.

Consider counting from ten to twenty. Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen and so on till eighteen, nineteen and twenty. The pattern is different and irregular.

Before I show you the Chinese method of counting, let me show you the first 10 numbers, shown by the Arabic numeral, the English name and the (closest) Chinese pronunciation I can give:

1 one (yi, like in “yeast”)
2 two (er, like in “brighter”)
3 three (san, “sahn”)
4 four (si, do a short hissing sound with the s)
5 five (wu, “woo” and keep it short)
6 six (liu, “li” and “ou” as in “shoulder”, and string li-ou together quickly)
7 seven (qi, “cheese” without the s, and shorter in length)
8 eight (ba, as in “barter”)
9 nine (jiu, “gi” as in “gin” and “ou” as in “shoulder”. Like that of six.)
10 ten (shi, like that of four, with the h)

There are actually 4 tonal inflections for a Chinese character pronunciation, and we’ll ignore that for this discussion.

So to count in Chinese from ten to twenty, we have shi, shi yi, shi er, shi san, shi si, shi wu, shi liu, shi qi, shi ba, shi jiu, er shi. They are literally “ten”, “ten one”, “ten two”, “ten three” and so on till “ten nine” and “two ten”. There’s an implicit “one” in front of the “ten”, so it’s “one ten one” for eleven. For twenty three, it’s “er shi san”, or literally “two tens and three”.

Gladwell says this gives structure to the counting system, so children are able to grasp larger numbers quicker. The faster you can count to larger numbers, the more operations you can do on them. Additions, subtractions, summations and so on.

Ok, I’m not saying the Chinese number naming system is better than the English system. It’s just different. Gladwell says this difference also makes memorising short number sequences easier. For example, I can remember my Identification Card Number (equivalent to the Social Security Number in America) easier in Chinese than in English.

It explains why when someone asks for my phone number in English, I have a problem. Because I’m mentally translating my memory of the phone number from Chinese to English. Did you know it’s kinda hard to say out 8 digits in English while translating them from a Chinese memory? I can even mentally picture the numbers. It’s the speaking out that’s taking up mental processing time.

Gladwell also made a point about Cantonese (a Chinese dialect) pronunciation of numbers. So I tried saying out numbers in Cantonese (yes, I’m multilingual), and wow, it is easier to say and memorise! The Cantonese pronunciation of numbers are short in length, which makes it easier to spit them out *smile*

And the relation to programming? Programming is made up largely of counting and solutions formed from abstract ideas. When I first learned C, I was surprised that many fellow students had difficulty counting the number of iterations in say,

for (i=0; i<10; ++i)
{
	if (i>7) break;
	// do something
}

Counting and iterating leads to lists of data, or sets of data. In SQL, you can manipulate sets of data as if it’s one unit, abstracting away the fact that the data is actually iterated one by one. For example, you can select information from another data set, or a subquery as it’s known.

Of course, there are still some people who have difficulty visualising SQL data sets as one unit, hence their need to iterate over that one record by one record at a time, even when there’s no need. What does that tell you about these people?

Hard work is valued

Gladwell also made a point about culture. That successful people seem to grow up with a culture of valuing hard work. The ability to think on a problem long enough to come up with a solution.

He said something worth thinking about. There’s a educational researcher by the name of Erling Boe at the University of Pennsylvania. Boe says that one can know if a child will do well in math without asking that child a single math question.

The example in the book was a fictional Math Olympics. Before the test, there was a questionnaire to be filled in. There were tons of questions inside, none related to math. Boe asserts that a child who finishes that questionnaire will also do correspondingly just as well in the math test.

It’s a question of perseverance, the willingness to put one’s mind to work, even if one doesn’t feel like it.

Hard work is something valued in the countries of “wet-rice agriculture and meaningful work”, as Gladwell puts it. Based on the research of Boe, the top countries are Singapore (yay!), South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. Though I’m not so sure of my fellow countryman’s motivations… The parents and children could be driven more by the race for top scores rather than the culture passed on by our forefathers.

Well, I haven’t read much on Boe’s research, but the hardworking nature of my countrymen is fairly accurate. Students are willing to study for long periods of time (most of them anyway…). Adults are willing to work just a little longer, a little harder at work. For example, I recently knew that my friend worked overtime till 4 am at the office. Personally, I think that’s crazy, but to each his (in this case, her) own.

The native language

There was a question in StackOverflow about coding in other spoken languages, which was highlighted in Jeff and Joel’s recent podcast.

The reserved words in a programming language are fixed. Usually they are in English, though there are programming languages in say Chinese. I didn’t know there was a Chinese version of BASIC!

Once, I took up an SQL reference book, written in Chinese. I want to mention that I cannot read a programming reference book written in Chinese. That is to say, I can certainly read the Chinese characters, but I can’t understand the heck what it means.

I need a reference book written in English for SQL, because the native (human) language for SQL is English! Unless there’s a variant I don’t know about…

I’ve seen some code written in Spanish before, I think. Can’t remember. Anyway, the native language for the programming language (C, I think) was English, so the code reads fine. The variable names look different, but I didn’t have too much difficulty.

My guess is that my math background prepared me for abstract notions and symbols, and still be able to work with them. So I treated variables named in a foreign language as just another symbol. And continued to read the code based on that.

And this brings me full circle to…

So does background really matter?

I am unfamiliar with how an American (or English, or French) grows up. I don’t really know the values valued, or the culture surrounding the upbringing of a child.

I do know mine. I’m brought up learning two languages (English and Chinese), two Chinese dialects (Hokkien and Cantonese). I taught myself to read Japanese characters. I’m brought up around people who wake up before dawn to work, and work long hours, regularly and consistently and over long periods of time.

Personal values, personality, genes and luck. I agree they play a part in the makings of a great programmer. In particular, I believe that one’s background influences personal values and personality, so in that sense, background does matter.

And specifically, I think my math background makes grasping programming concepts easier for me.

Of course, everything you’ve just read could be hogwash, because I’m still telling (interesting, I hope) anecdotes to illustrate points as Joel points out vehemently. I haven’t read a lot about computer science and its history in America (or pretty much anywhere in the world). I research just enough so that what I write is as true as I understand it (sometimes I don’t research at all!).

I admit that I’m still naive and easily impressed. I still pretty much trust what I read as true. It’s only when I start internalising the information that I really think about them.

So what do you think?

  1. SomeBeans

    Interesting thoughts, I’m attempting to learn bits of Chinese. The spoken language seems quite logical and straightforward, certainly compared to other languages I’m familiar with (English, French, German). The written language is complete madness…

    My problem with counting things in loops is typically I can’t remember if I’m starting at 0 or 1!

    Although my background is mathematical, I do have some anecdotal evidence that a strong languages background can help in programming. Recall that a fraction of the code breakers at Bletchley Park had a languages background. Also I used to hang out with fellows at a Cambridge college and chatting to one of them he described how they’d written an early library management system in the 1970’s – he was a linguist.

  2. Vincent Tan

    Yeah, learning Chinese… I’m lost at writing the characters too… That was the painful part of it, remembering how each character looks like.

    “I can’t remember if I’m starting at 0 or 1!”
    And the fact that you don’t have to start with 0 or 1 in a loop compounds the problem. For example, you could start with -10 and end with 20 if it makes sense for the logic.

    And thanks for the Bletchley Park and Cambridge college reference. At least there’s *some* evidence that linguistic ability carries some weight in programming ability.

    Particularly the code breaking part. Not only were the coders working with a programming language, understanding both English and German (that right?) makes it easier to quickly look out for patterns.

  3. Philip Fitzsimons

    Nice post, I would caveat that not all programmers are the same (i.e. some solve problems intuitively, others laterally and some even mathmatically!)

    In the UK the one large trend I have seen is that programmers come from a science background, and that a large portion started as engineers (myself included).

    I suspect that interest in language, mathematics or engineering could all be traced back to a childhood wish to play with or solve puzzles or problems. This may not be formal solving, just and environment where this kind of activity is condoned and even encouraged.

    Philip Fitzsimonss last blog post..OpenStreetMap rendering in Silverlight

  4. Vincent Tan

    “I suspect that interest in language, mathematics or engineering could all be traced back to a childhood wish to play with or solve puzzles or problems.”

    That’s what I thought too, Philip! A curiosity about learning new things, to crack, ponder and figure out puzzles (even if the puzzle isn’t strictly a puzzle). I think it’s a fascination with how things work.

    It’s that fascination that motivates a person long enough that a solution be found.

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