Understanding English with Code
by Michael MacKay
July, 22nd, 2020
Writing has always been a limiting factor in my academic endeavours, but I have struggled to overcome this weakness. Despite being a native English speaker, I often struggle to articulate my thoughts coherently and effectively. It seems like I am attempting to translate my synthesis processes into English rather than thinking in English. My efforts into academic writing struggle from this mistranslation, yet I have improved dramatically in my attempts to understand my thought processes and apply them to my writing.
I have always found expressing myself in the English language cumbersome and unintuitive. As a young student, I had a mental projection of the English language as a chaotic web of interconnecting rules and contradictions. It was somehow iridescent, changing colour from one angle or perspective to another, most likely a symbol of how one’s context and perspective changes the meaning of a given written text. At the time, I lacked the finesse to express this, but I knew that the language itself had an enormous impact on how I viewed the world, and that view could change based on the angle or perspective I had. The language ended up being more a shackle than a tool to express and share my experiences. Lubyan and Bergen argue, “language… is not simply a communication system; it is a control system” (2016, para. 38), and I found English very controlling until I began to learn to code.
Learning to code shifted my perspective and allowed me to respect the English language. Most coding languages are an expression of strictly held instructions that the computer follows. I had this underlying belief that I had to understand all aspects of a system to apply it appropriately, which is why I found the English language, with all its grey areas and contradictions frustrating. “The syntax of the [coding] language refers to the ‘grammar’ we use to write the code that the computer compiles” (MacKay, n.d., para. 1) and as I learned the syntax of different coding languages, I was able to apply that structure to the English language. My understanding of English’s chaotic web became more structured and defined; it still had many contradictions, but I had a framework to navigate the anarchy.
This framework, I would later discover, was referred to as computational thinking, and I applied its methodological approach to my assignments. Computational thinking allowed me to create abstract systems to translate the English language into a representation that gave me the confidence to modify and influence it without understanding every detail (Wing, 2006, p. 1). Still, I found much of my graduate work underwhelming. Somewhere in the translation from my natural thought process to the paper, some meaning was lost. To alleviate this miscommunication, I used the Royal Roads Writing Center and the computational framework I developed to complete most of my assignments. Using this system and feedback from the instructor, I was able to identify areas of concern: (1) paragraph transitions, (2) assumptions of known content, (3) citation and proper use of grey literature, and (4) word choice. At the end of the newly constructed assignment, I would read through my work, focusing on each area of concern and make appropriate adjustments. Finally, I used the Royal Roads’ Introduction to Academic Writing to compose a plan for each sequential assignment in the hope it would allow me to compare and contrast the myriad of new thoughts that arose during the writing process to see if they helped polish my message (2017).
A unified and elegant message has become the primary goal of my academic writing. Thinking back on the progress I have made, it is a surreal experience, I have gone from a schoolboy that could barely understand the syntax of the English language to someone that has internal debates about how to best structure an essay to create the best experience for the reader. Nevertheless, I still view the framework I have constructed and my current accomplishments as only the foundation. Much remains to be done if I want to translate my future messages articulately.
Royal Roads. (2017). Introduction to Academic Writing. http://media.royalroads.ca/media/Library/writingcentre/Videos/Intro%20to%20academic%20writing-plan/index.html
Lupyan, G., & Bergen, B. (2016). How Language Programs the Mind. Topics in Cognitive Science, 8(2), 408–424. https://doi.org/10.1111/tops.12155
MacKay, M. (n.d.). Syntax, Variables, Methods. https://themrmackay.com/learn/2-syntax-variables-methods/
Wing, J. M. (2006). Computational thinking. In Communications of the ACM (Vol. 49, Issue 3, pp. 33–35). Association for Computing Machinery. https://doi.org/10.1145/1118178.1118215