Coding or Foreign Language: Should We Have to Choose?

<!–Coding or Foreign Language:  Should We Have to Choose?–>

The debate surrounding whether computer coding should be incorporated into our school’s language departments or whether it should be categorized as a math and science requirement is not new.  It has shadowed our nation’s technology and education systems since computers went public.  It fades quietly into the background for a few years then comes back as complicated and divisive as ever.

<h3>As American as Apple Pie: Coding Then and Now</h3>

In the 70s and 8os, coding was still paying its dues across much of the globe.  Few outside of the developers’ lab or scientific circles knew to even call coding a language.  Only the more hard-core engineer and hobbyist types had microcomputers in their homes or knew the rules and syntax of the coding languages. 

Silicon Valley and its “rock star” software developers held a different view then than they do today.  In response to the need to train future developers and programmers, they campaigned unsuccessfully for substituting BASIC computer language for natural foreign language credits.

Not many citizens were paying attention to the debate.  However, when Oklahoma allowed computer science to take the place of a foreign language credit in 1991, the question of whether computer code should be on par with natural languages in the classroom exploded into societal consciousness.

Like the developers of the past, today’s 21st century proponents of allowing computer science to replace foreign language credit have many of the same challenges.  Employment, poverty, and lagging global competitiveness have only grown worse over time. 

Lack of hardware and software, internet connections, and knowledgeable instructors are some of the reasons our states are not faring well in the technology arena.  Advocates also hope this strategy will revitalize a waning interest in the computer sciences and increase diversity in the field, a long-standing complaint in the technology sector.  

However, traditional language instruction in the classroom has not been immune to its share of the same problems.  Our nation’s citizens, especially today’s younger generation, suffer from a lack of interest in human languages, too.  Like our computer skills, the US is well behind the rest of our global counterparts in percentage of citizens who speak or understand multiple languages.  In 2010 some 53% of the European population understood another language besides their native tongue, compared to a mere 18% of Americans.  Recently, classrooms suffered another blow to linguistics when, in 2012, a 27 million dollar budget dole-out was given and then cut. 

<title>The Rub</title>

Knowing someone else’s language enables communication among people.  It gives us the ability to work and socialize with those of another culture, both at home and abroad.  This sense of community ensures continued creativity, cooperation, and production; fluency in a language other than our own brings value to us.  Learning and practicing new languages exercises our brains by challenging our critical thinking skills and adaptability. 

The same things are said about computer coding.  Coding meets the definition of a language, stretches our abilities, connects us to others, and creates and shapes our daily actions.  Until now, there has been no hard data to back that up, but recent studies of the brain suggest that the same impulses that one uses to study natural languages are also at play when studying code.

Yet, the natural language department doesn’t want the burden of teaching students to code, the computer community agrees they shouldn’t teach it, and no one is denying that learning a natural language and learning computer science, with its language of coding, are both highly beneficial.  So where is the rub?  Ironically, it comes in the form of a prepositional phrase: in place of.

Supporters of the idea contend that allowing computer science as a language credit in place of a German or Mandarin one is our nation’s most prudent solution to a plethora of problems concerning the need for a computer-literate nation.  It is an unpopular solution, but it is catching on.  Washington State, New Mexico, and Kentucky are among the states to recently finalize legislation that will allow two years of computer science classes to count as foreign language credits.    

However, many feel this is an ineffective and, possibly, a disastrous plan.  Derrick Graham, former House Education Chairman, spoke to the heart of the matter for those opposed when he said, “You should not cut one program that we know is beneficial and important to incorporate another.”  Today’s technology companies and experts agree with Graham.  They champion that computer science fits within the math and science disciplines only and should not be lumped with linguistics.  They advocate teaching our nation’s students computer science as a math requirement in high school or earlier.

 Amy Hirotaka of Code.org, a tech advocacy non-profit, says, “Counting computer science as a foreign language might sound like a creative fix, but it causes major problems . . .”  Many agree.  Richard Barton, co-founder and executive chairman of Zillow Group, an internet real-estate giant, echoes their sentiments when he asks, “Should geometry be substituted for history?  It is almost an apples-and-oranges sort of thing.  They don’t seem sustainable.”

 Twenty five states currently count computer science classes as math or science credits rather than linguistics credits.  They believe this is the best path because our economy is dependent on many areas of math and science to prosper.  It is also the more sensible alternative, they say, because the US lacks the resources to properly re-train in the computer sciences teachers who have certification in other fields. 

Those states join the sciences in declaring that computing should stay in the math and science departments, where its roots are deepest.  They counter that taking away resources and instruction time in French or Spanish to teach code puts an already constrained situation in a tailspin.  

Despite problems with funding and such, learning a natural human language is also a high priority because of its lasting value to society and inclusion of more people.  Michael Cluck, a computer programmer, makes the point that “. . . learning a programming language only allows you to communicate with other programmers; learning to speak another language allows you to speak to all kinds of people.”

Patrick Cox is an editor at Public Radio Initiative (PRI) and the host of PRIs The World in Words podcast.  He succinctly voices the concerns these schools feel towards their counterparts when he says, “It’s an indication of the low value that many Americans—and unfortunately, educators—place on foreign language learning.  No linguist I know buys the argument that a computer programming language is even close to a natural language and should be treated as such.” 

However, the champions for coding as a foreign language credit are proliferating.  Sonali Kohli of The Atlantic Magazine points to the reality of technology today when he says “These students are going to be surrounded by computers—in their pockets, in their offices, in their homes—for the rest of their lives.”  Taking a more all-in attitude, computer scientist J. Paul Gibson believes that “encouraging [coding] proficiency should be a priority for American schools because it is code, not Mandarin, that will be the true lingua franca of the future.”

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Disunity on all fronts of the issue is showing itself as a low domestic and global tech-savvy ranking.  Globally, Scotland, Israel, New Zealand, India, Greece, and South Korea are either already participating in, or working towards, some of the most stringent computer science programs in the world to-date.  What can be done to keep up is the pressing question among US citizens today, despite the fact that some of the world’s leading technology companies are American-born staples in this global industry.

There are nearly 600,000 jobs nationwide that are going unfilled in computing, with about 38,000 computer science graduates from US colleges to fill them.  By 2020, sources are predicting a 22% increase in computer-related jobs, further widening the gap.  Code.org gives the ball-park figure that 60% of all current STEM-related jobs are in the computing field.

Industry needs to take a larger, more active role raising funds and equipping the next generation with these vital 21st century skills; many are doing just that.  Robert Montenegro of bigthink.com is really thinking outside the box when he suggests that “if we as a society prioritize learning outside the classroom . . . perhaps coding could become something of a team effort like Little League.”

While stopping short of taking an official stance on the finer points of the language debate, our representatives are working to close the gap.  In December of last year, the White House announced a partnership with the largest school districts in the nation. 

They are teaming up to change the dismal fact that 90% of our schools do not offer any kind of computer-related classes.  Currently only 1 in 10 high schools nationwide teach at least one form of computer science. This would be encouraging—at least a few schools are teaching some computing, right?—were it not for the reality that those classes are usually not substantial, but something fluffy like basic keyboarding.  

Locally, the world is watching our humble state.  Last March, in an effort to eradicate those embarrassing statistics, Governor Asa Hutchinson signed into law, complete with an unheard-of mega-budget endorsement to implement it, a bill that requires all public and charter high schools in Arkansas to offer classes in computer science as part of the standard curriculum. 

It adds an optional flex credit (a type of elective) for a computer science course that aligns with either a math or science credit.  However, it now also requires the completion of a minimum of one digital learning course to graduate.  

The law is not without its detractors, but this puts Arkansas on the map as a national leader.  Since no other state in the US currently has plans to put such an ambitious program in place, all eyes are on Arkansas to see if this law will set a successful precedent.

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The thing that makes this such a sticky and long-running issue is that, frankly, both camps are right.  Learning an additional natural language can promote unity among nations as well as enhance one’s career. Learning a coding language, especially when coupled with an intense study of computer science, offers the same. 

It might be more appropriate and beneficial to equalize the two rather than to replace one with the other.  By working together to implement creative funding solutions and exciting, diverse programs, industry, government officials, and schools can ensure our youth gain needed skills in both areas.

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4 thoughts on “Coding or Foreign Language: Should We Have to Choose?

  1. This is an interesting debate, and one that I haven’t really heard of until now. I think coding should be included as part of the curriculum for computer science classes in both high school and college classes. I was never exposed to coding as a language until a few years ago and I think I missed out by not learning earlier. I think you should be able to take both coding and a foreign language, why limit yourself to one or the other?

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  2. As with my response to Heather’s piece on net neutrality, I’m not entirely sure where I stand on the debate you described, but I can attest that coding’s relevance in the modern workplace warrants stronger encouragement to be taught as a skill. In terms of coding being designated as a “language,” I think both sides have fairly valid points, but I tend to be reluctant to choose sides in these kinds of debates since they tend to fall on tedious arguments of semantics.

    However, I appreciate that you directly address this attitude near the end of your article, and I like that you included the statement that it “might be more appropriate and beneficial to equalize the two rather than to replace” the concepts of language and coding. It’ll be interesting to see how people’s views on the two fields will change (or persist) in the coming years, when technological systems might become more complex and diverse:

    http://www.infoworld.com/article/2610221/application-development/12-predictions-for-the-future-of-programming.html

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