The Benefits of Second Language Acquisition for Developers

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Facundo Corradini
Senior Developer
Woman and man in front of screen with software code speaking in different languages

Learning a second language can always be a thrilling experience on its own, as it allows you to know new cultures, places, and people from all corners of the world. 

But what if I tell you it can also reshape how your brain works and make you a better developer, enhancing both your soft skills as well as your technical capabilities? 

Join me as I share one of the discoveries that fascinates me the most as a front-end mentor, a polyglot, and a psychology geek. 

The Self-Evident Benefits

Broaden Your Reach

Learning a second language allows you to communicate better with clients in big economies and co-workers all around the globe. We already are in the era of remote working, and therefore speaking multiple languages can be the key to your career development. 

This is particularly true if you’re learning English as a second language, but can also help if you’re going for any other widespread language, as bigger projects are meant to scale and be consumed all over the world.

Better Understand Technical Documentation

Any experienced developer knows that an hour of reading the docs can save you from hours of Googling and bouncing around Stack Overflow. And I really mean the save part, as all that time you’re stuck with something is actually costing money, pushing you closer to the deadline, and mashing you through an avoidable source of stress. 

With increasingly complex stacks and applications, being able to take full advantage of the documentation will supercharge your developer powers.  

Again, English is the de-facto language of documentation, but if you are an English-speaking developer and also know another language, maybe you can help with the translations. Technical writers and translators are the unsung heroes of software development.

Access a Wider Network of Resources

From learning courses and articles, you can use throughout your education to connecting with people from anywhere in the world, learning multiple languages can be the key to helping you build solid technical skills and a great network and community.  

The Hidden Aspects of How Language Acquisition Improves Your Brain

The obvious aspects mentioned above should be more than compelling enough to kickstart your interest in language acquisition, but the best is yet to come: it actually can shape how your brain works and make it better suited for software development. 

Differences between bilingual brains and monolingual brains are well documented, even down to the biological level: it increases the mass and connections in certain parts of your brain. Multiple studies have correlated this to increased working memory, which is a major advantage to software development. Let’s dive into how this works and the amazing benefits it provides.

Working Memory and Software Development

The biggest change driven by learning a new language is increased working memory, which is the capacity to hold information temporarily and apply it. In geeky terms, it’s adding RAM to your brain’s CPU for free. 

Better working memory can greatly benefit your everyday developer tasks, keeping better track of multiple scopes and contexts. This is particularly useful for highly contextual languages such as CSS, where context is everything, but also comes in handy when dealing with complex databases, or with multiple variables, bigger objects, or intertwined functions and methods in your coding language of choice.

Preparation for Upcoming Architectures and Paradigms

Programming is shifting towards a declarative paradigm, and being better prepared for it can be a huge competitive advantage. 

To know how this relates to language acquisition, we should briefly get into some basic psychology: in 1983, psychologist Howard Gardner shook the neurosciences world when he proposed the existence of multiple intelligence modalities, among which we can find: 

  • Visual-spatial
  • Logical-mathematical
  • Linguistic-verbal

Whether these are actually different types of intelligence or simply a mix of general cognitive ability with skillset groups and even personality traits is highly disputed, but they still provide a useful framework that we can use to understand some of the key divides in our industry. 

I’m sure most of us can sometimes get the feeling that designers and developers come from completely different worlds. This can be explained by their brains operating primarily on a different intelligence modality: designers rely primarily on visual-spatial intelligence, while programmers deal mostly with logical-mathematical. No big surprises there, right? 

But where does linguistic-verbal intelligence fit in all of this? Well, programming languages are languages. When Grace Hopper invented the first compiler, she aimed to program computers using human language instead of computer instructions. Some languages like Python even take this to the next level, trying to make programming as similar as possible to written English.

Programming is primarily logical, but as things shift towards a declarative nature, it’s becoming increasingly more linguistic. Developing your linguistic skills will put you on the right path to better thrive in the new paradigm. 

Improve Your Ability to Learn New Skills  

Learning a second (or multiple!) spoken languages has been linked to ease of learning programming languages

Despite most college education in computer science relying heavily on developing mathematical skills, the evidence to back that up is inconsistent to say the least. Instead, recent studies have shown evidence of a strong correlation between speaking a second language and ease in learning programming.  This is huge, as it could re-shape the whole concept we have about how programming should be taught in learning institutions. 

Prevent Brain Deterioration 

Learning multiple languages has been linked to preventing brain deterioration, even lessening and delaying the appearance of neurodegenerative diseases by up to four years. So if you want to code in your senior years, this can be one of the most important decisions you can make right now. I know most people reading this are probably not planning to still be coding for that long, but it’s still a great benefit to have the best quality of life to really enjoy your free time after all these years of work. 

Develop Your Soft Skills

Yup, there’s even more! Learning multiple languages can help you develop the right soft skills, which are becoming increasingly important to employers. Your desire and ability to learn new languages speaks volumes for your prospects as a future team member. 

Communication Skills

It goes without saying that learning a new language improves your communication skills. Being able to communicate effectively is an extremely important skill to have in an era of distributed, remote teams. 

Multiculturalism

Languages don’t exist on their own but as part of a culture. Therefore, when learning a new language you’re exposed to other cultures and tend to open your mind to different perspectives and ways of thinking. 

For instance, you may know that websites in Arabic are written right to left, but did you know that some icons should be horizontally flipped, while others don’t?

Knowing how different cultures work allows you to look at the bigger picture, anticipate and prevent conflictive patterns, and design robust, scalable solutions that will make your projects not only multilingual but multicultural as well. 

Creativity

Cognitive research associates bilingualism with heightened mental flexibility and creative thinking skills. Being able to think outside the box and pursue multiple avenues of thought will help you find better solutions for any given problem.

Adaptability and Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

Trying to communicate when you haven’t reached full command of a language can be quite challenging, but daring to try shows that you’re not afraid of getting out of your comfort zone.
In such a dynamic ecosystem as software development, this is a skill that will greatly benefit you in keeping up to date with ever-changing tools and techniques. 

Conclusion

As we’ve seen, learning a new language can help you develop your technical skills and reach a broader audience and foreign markets to find better freelance jobs, but it also has lots of hidden benefits that can literally reshape your brain and help you become a better developer. 

From easing the learning curve of any programming language to improving your ability to keep things at “the top of your head” and better prepare you for declarative programming, to developing the soft skills that make you a great cultural fit, learning a new language will set you up for success!


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