Curiosity. It’s what leads us to explore and learn. It can however also trip us up, and contribute to developing a fear of failure. That’s partially why we tend to become less curious as we get older. Don’t you wish you could go back to a childlike mindset of discovery?
The skills we develop early in life, through curiosity, often remain with us forever. They can become our guiding principles. This is what happened to Stas. He started his discovery hacking early computers in Russia—well before the internet was a thing!
The tools and mindset he developed learning to program, he used to crack the code to the English language.
My passion for computers started in childhood. My best friend, Sergey, got a computer, a Sinclair Spectrum, from his parents. We spent ages trying to figure it out together, by remaking simple programs in BASIC [one of the first computer languages developed for non-mathematicians—MK].
At that time computers in Russia were relatively popular in the world of gaming, but not in the field of programming. We didn’t have any books about coding, it was before the internet. The only way to approach learning was through independent discovery. We just dismantled the machines to see how they work inside, then worked on our programs without any documentation or books. Can you believe that programs back then were on cassette tapes?
It was true code hacking, before we even knew the term. One trick I remember we discovered was to stop the tape with a program before it loaded completely. It would stop the computer from running the program, but whatever loaded would be stored in the memory. This allowed us to explore how the program was written.
Cracking systems was what my childhood was about.
After that my parents bought me a cooler computer, a Schneider PC with software written in DOS 6.22. The system was more powerful, of course, but even more importantly it came with documentation—on four separate floppy discs, 720kB each. This vastly sped up my discovery process. It helped me learn to write simple programs. After that I went to university to study computer science and turned this childhood interest into a profession.
An extra barrier for us in the early days of programming was that everything was in English. But for two 14-year old coders it was just another layer of code to crack.
I have to admit, my interest in programming was the only reason I started learning English. Of course, I also had English classes at school, but that wasn’t really learning—it was only about grammar. While in class we’d spend a month going over one tense, I’d be studying from computer manuals and learning how the language was used in practice.
Many Russians have the same problem—they learn theory at school, but find no place to practice, either speaking or writing. My first contact with real English was on forums in the early days of the internet. I had to go to university to get connected to the web, of course.
Forums were where I could find all the information I needed or was interested in. Those were such early days for the internet—I had to take a tutorial to learn to create my first email address! This was back in 2002, and it’s an address I use to this day.
Initially I’d read the English text and, just like with my first computer, use a dictionary to look up words just to get a gist of the conversation. After my programming improved, it was also time for my English to advance to the next level. Why? Because I started looking for customers and had to talk to them.
Rather than a tool for gathering information, I started seeing English language as a tool for communication. My first experience using English in practice was with my first, German, customer. It was comforting that in this interaction both sides had restricted English. In a sense, we were both trying to figure each other out.
When I realised how important English communication was I continued to look for opportunities to practice. Having tried several language exchange apps, I have to say out of all other tools I tried, HelloTalk has the best functions. It also reminds me of my early forum experience since the app allows people to congregate by interest, through creating groups.
I also created my own group to help those interested in studying Russian. Curiously, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of demand for the language, I think there are even more people interested in learning Ukrainian than Russian! To find interested learners, I typically reach out to those who post Moments in Russian. It might be hard to find a partner for a one-on-one conversation, so it’s often easier to join a group with several native speakers.
Most of our group members learn Russian in preparation for a sightseeing trip to Moscow or St. Petersburg. Rarely do I see long-term students with real motivation. We’ve had two dedicated Chinese women though, Nana and Valentina—both studied Russian at university, and Nana went to work in a Russian company. We also have a Canadian guy who met a woman from Kazakhstan and needed to speak Russian to talk with her. He’s been less active lately…I hope it’s because they practice together.
English: A Code
HelloTalk, just like a computer, is a tool to learn about the world. I like when groups discuss more interesting topics, or at least something more specific than “food and fun.” It’s inspiring to connect with other people who are truly curious about different cultures and places.HelloTalk, just like a computer, is a tool to learn about the world. Click To Tweet
The parallel I see between learning to program and learning a language is in grammar. In real life, however, languages are about talking. On HelloTalk I often have experiences that remind me of my first work assignments. When non-native speakers have to use English as a medium of communication—neither side is perfect, but if the will is there they will find a way to express what they need to. To consider myself fluent in English I’d want to be able to talk about all my thoughts and feelings. I still feel quite restricted when it comes to vocabulary.
Learning to program and learning grammar are very similar.
The skill of communication has more layers to it that just speaking a common language. Programming is a one-way process, you only send messages to a machine. With people, however, the process goes both ways, and both sides need to want to make a connection. People are unpredictable and sometimes I can’t understand them at all. Communicating with computers is really much simpler.
If he magically became natively fluent in English tomorrow, Stas told me he’d use English to explore other countries and make more friends. He’d definitely go back to Spain. The warm weather stands in stark contrast to the temperature in Samara, Russia. It was minus 12 degrees when we chatted over Skype.
Curiosity motivated Stas to explore computers, a course of action that required mastering English. English in turn opened doors to many more topics to be discovered. It continues to bring him value, satisfying Stas’ child-like curiosity about other people and cultures.
Written and interviewed by Marta Krzeminska
Featured image by bruce mars from Pexels