Different types of language: “What we cannot speak, we must write”, by Gilles Dowek

Changed on 03/01/2020
In French, a distinction is drawn between the human languages that we speak and formal languages, such as programming languages in computing or the language used in a musical score. In this essay, Gilles Dowek takes the time to help us to understand not only the differences, but also the deep connections between human languages and formal languages.

Analysis by Thierry Viéville, published on the blog Binaire.
Livre Dowek
Editions Le Pommier

Language, or languages, play a central role in the way in which we think and communicate. Languages are vehicles of thought . In the words of Jean-Michel Blanquer, French minister for national education, “code is a language” . This makes it critical to understand the differences and links between computational thinking and other forms of intellectual creation in terms of how they are formulated linguistically.

Gilles Dowek presents a seminal essay on languages, these different ways we have of understanding the world. His work is targeted at people interested in literature and scientists.

We express ourselves using a wide range of different languages. However, we also use languages to prescribe glasses, to buy train tickets, to schedule meetings, to ask for information, and so on. The question goes beyond mere computational thinking, though: both biology and physics also need languages to express the laws of nature. Languages are omnipresent, having been with us for thousands of years : without them, writing would be impossible. They greatly increase our ability to express ourselves .

Dowek’s essay is also a superb introduction to some of the main ideas of computer science. Understanding the underlying differences between languages at a syntactic and semantic level is essential if we want to properly teach IT, as is the case with human languages, and to determine to what extent an initiation in computational thinking could give a second chance to people having struggled with other humanities.

Gilles Dowek shares all of these fascinating insights from science and literature and many more in his essay. This leads to far-reaching questions regarding our way of looking at the world, completely turned on its head by computational thought.

These subjects are of vital importance, subjects we need to be able to talk about - in order to do so, this is essential reading.

Dowek, G. (2019). What we cannot speak, we must write, Different types of language Le Pommier (eds), a collection of essays.

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Binaire. The purpose of this blog is to talk about computing, to discuss what computing really is as a science and from a technical point of view, and to examine its definitions, the progress that has been made, the dangers inherent to it, key questions, where it has been successful and the impact it has had, critical issues, careers, education, etc.

IT. IT has gradually infiltrated all domains of knowledge, communication, scientific research, medicine and industrial processes and is increasingly prominent in the administration and governance of companies, and even society as a whole. IT has played a vital role in all of the major innovations that have taken place over the past decades. IT has been involved in the far-reaching changes to the world in which we live.

The scientific council of the French IT society came together to reflect on this subject. See the full text:  IT — quèsaco ? More answers can be found in our series  IT discussions”.

The team. We are scientists and professionals from the world of research who all share a resolutely optimistic vision of science and technology. We are anything but naive, however. We are fully aware of the potentially devastating impact of new IT advances. It is our opinion that, as a society, we have to develop a better understanding of IT in order to fully grasp the new problems arising from it. We also believe that IT can play a key role in finding solutions to these problems. This is what we want to talk about.

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