This week, Charlotte Lorimer, part of our Communications and Marketing team, finds out about the spoken and programming languages of Team Starling and explores the parallels between learning a foreign language and learning to code.

Humans have many ways of communicating: spoken language, sign language, body language, pictures, letters, numbers, notes and codes. Team Starling is made up of people from all over the world, practising all sorts of languages from Japanese to Java, Swedish to Swift.

Spoken languages

Across the world, there are between 6000 and 7000 spoken languages, according to the website created for the European Day of Languages, celebrated each year on 26th September. This awareness day was set up in 2001 to encourage people to learn a language both in and out of school and to celebrate diversity and culture.

Starling is full of people from all sorts of continents, countries and counties. When I first joined Starling as an intern in July 2017, I loved how many accents could be heard over lunch or at Friday demo, the time when the whole company gets together to share updates on recent releases or upcoming launches. We now have over 250 people in the office and over 50 spoken languages between us.

languages spoken at starling
Spoken languages within Team Starling

Ainomari Heikkilä, 25, who is part of Starling’s Customer Service team speaks five languages. Growing up in Finland, she did English and Swedish at school and learned to speak Spanish and Italian while she was studying Consumer Economics at the University of Helsinki.

“I love learning the rules and the grammar,” she says. “And when you travel, if you speak even a few words of the language, you can participate in the culture in a completely different way.” As part of her course, she spent a year in Turin studying Economics and Italian.

Another multi-linguist at Starling is Victor Tourinho, 28, who works in the Credit and Risk team. He was born in Salvador in Brazil and grew up in Lisbon in Portugal. “Portuguese is my native language. It shares a lot with Spanish and many of the cartoons I watched growing up were in Spanish or in English, which I started learning when I was 7,” he says. He also speaks a bit of French.

“I like being able to communicate with more people from different places,” he says. “You understand the richness of languages and you can express yourself better. There might be a word in one language that can’t be translated into another language,” he says. “For example, the Portuguese word ‘saudade’ is a nostalgic feeling of missing someone or something, and it says all of that in one word.”

Programming languages

At Starling, communication goes beyond spoken languages. Not only do we have people who are fluent in Yoruba and Latvian, we have people who are fluent in Ruby and Python, programming languages which we use to develop the app and the technology that supports the bank.

As I made my way through the office, I listed 25 programming languages that people use or had used in the past, with a number of languages sparking debates as to whether they should be included or not (LOLCODE and HTML were the most heated). From the list, the earliest developed programming language is Fortran, created by American computer scientist John Baktus in 1957.

programming languages at starling
Programming languages within Team Starling

The programming languages used by most people at Starling were Java, Python and JavaScript (I quickly discovered that Java and JavaScript were completely different languages). “Some languages have common features in the way that they define different ‘blocks’ of code,” says Sam Rose, 27, one of our Software Engineers. “For example, the programming language C uses {curly braces} while for Python, it’s the indentation level that separates the blocks of code.”

Java and Python are programming languages that are often taught at universities. Nicole Pilsworth, 22, is a Junior Platform Engineer who graduated from the University of Bath this year with a degree in Maths and Computer Science. “I learned Java at uni which is one of the stricter, more difficult languages. It’s good to learn Java first because going from Java to Python is easier than the other direction,” she says. “We covered about 7 or 8 programming languages but we also learned about the programming principles that would help us to write good code for all languages.”

Drawing parallels

“Maths and Computer Science are both about problem solving,” says Nicole, who studied French and Spanish at school in Guildford. “Spoken languages and programming languages are about communication.”

There are many similarities between learning to speak a language and learning to code. “If you knew how to speak French and then saw Spanish for the first time, you’d be able to understand some Spanish words. It’s the same with coding. If you knew Python really well and saw Java, you’d know what the code was trying to do, even if it was in a very vague sense,” she says.

Software Engineer Alison Choy, 29, says that once you’ve learned one programming language, it’s much easier to learn a second one. This can be compared to learning spoken languages. Picking up a third language is often easier than learning a second language for the first time. “It was much easier to learn German after I’d learned English,” she says.

She moved from Hong Kong to the UK when she was 14. “I’d learned how to read and write some English before I moved but spoken English can be quite different,” she says. “And with English, there are more exceptions than rules.”

Something she found difficult about teaching herself how to code, which she did in order to complete her PhD, was knowing what terms to put into Google. “I had to figure out how to phrase the question to get the right answer,” she says. “With spoken languages, I always had people to ask for help.”

Sam, who grew up in Hawarden and studied Welsh at school, described the similarity between spoken languages and programming languages in the way that they are grouped into families. For example, English is described as a Germanic language along with German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic. In coding, the C family includes C, C#, C++ and Objective-C plus Java, JavaScript, PHP and several others. “C is a language that was created to unify lots of other languages in computers and then other languages have derived from C,” he says.

Evolving languages

All languages develop over time. For example, when Italy was unified in 1861, each region had its own dialect. The Tuscan dialect became the most prevalent but the language wasn’t fully unified until the 1950s when televisions became more popular, according to the Italian Language School EuroPass. Different dialects continue to be used today, coming together to make up one language. Sam compared this to the relatively new programming language Kotlin. “The creators of Kotlin try to pick and choose what they consider the best elements of other programming languages,” he says.

Just as the popularity of certain programming languages changes over time, the words and phrases we use in everyday spoken languages go in and out of fashion. Even though the word ‘fintech’ has been used by people in the industry to mean financial technology for years, it only made it into the American dictionary Merriam-Webster earlier this month on 7th September 2018.

So while the name of our industry may have only just been recognised as mainstream vocabulary, both fintech and Starling are ever evolving, adapting and changing with the times, like language itself.

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