A comparison of the organizational strategies of multilingual computer programmers

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Virginia Tech

The objective of this study was to determine whether computer programmers would organize reserved words by programming language or by conceptual category, when given an opportunity to use either strategy. Twenty-seven participants, stratified by programming experience level (novice, intermediate, and expert), were given sixteen reserved words on index cards. The words were taken from four programming languages, as well as six conceptual categories. Participants were given both a recognition and a recall task.

Organizing the words by conceptual category enabled the expert programmers to perform significantly better on the recall task than experts who organized by language. In addition, they made fewer recognition errors, and had more structured recall, in terms of recalling the words by the categories in which they were studied.

Expert computer programmers, similar to natural language multilinguals, can recall more (reserved) words when they are organized by conceptual categories rather than by (programming) language. It is hypothesized that this is because human memory is organized in a fundamentally interdependent (across languages) manner in many domains other than natural language, such as computer programming.