Requiring Computer Programming instead of a Foreign Language!

Dear Commons Community,

There is a brief piece (subscription required) in The Chronicle of Higher Education on the movement in the United Kingdom and some states to replace foreign language requirements in high schools with computer coding. This is not a new issue and has evolved a number of times in the past. In the 1970-80s, there was a movement to substitute the BASIC programming language for foreign language.  Today, the same concept is being promoted with HTML.  Without a doubt, learning a computer language is a worthwhile activity.  It requires syntax, rules, and organization, all of which are beneficial but it is not the same as learning a foreign language. In addition to grammar, vocabulary, and syntax, learning a foreign language also integrates learning about other cultures and people. In my mind, it is a much richer educational experience.  Below is an excerpt from the article which essentially reaches the same conclusion.



We are nearly five months into Britain’s “Year of Code,” an effort to promote computer-coding skills among Britons young and old. The British media’s coverage spiked in February, when the campaign’s director admitted she couldn’t code a computer to save her life, but has ebbed since.

Still, I’ve been taking advantage of some of the Year of Code offerings (which are not restricted to British residents), and spent a few hours last week at learning enough HTML and CSS to create a bare-bones personal Web page and enough JavaScript to produce some rudimentary animation. Neither was a particularly arduous experience, nor particularly rewarding; it was a bit like dipping into Turkish using the back pages of a Lonely Planet guide to Istanbul: You take in some vocabulary and grammar rules, but unless you start using what you’ve learned in a more practical way, it doesn’t really come to life.

The comparison with foreign language-learning is appropriate at the moment because a number of U.S. states are moving toward letting high-school students substitute computer coding classes for foreign-language requirements. (In Texas and Oklahoma, it’s done and dusted.) Advocates of the change argue that, aside from coding’s being a wildly useful skill at the moment, learning it exercises some of the same abilities as learning Spanish, French, or Chinese: pattern recognition, memorization, and concentration, to name a few.

Skeptics agree that coding is a skill worth teaching, but question the comparison with foreign languages. Yes, it involves recognizing and working within certain sets of rules—but then, so does math.

It’s of course invidious to suppose that you can’t learn both a foreign language and how to code, but there’s only so much time in a school day. My concern centers on the learning process. From what I know of coding, precision is essential. An extra <p> somewhere in your work can throw the whole thing into disarray. Foreign languages are very different: Even native speakers make hundreds of “mistakes” in a day, and it’s the rare one that actually trips up communication. Understanding this is critical to learning a foreign language. If you constantly aim for exactitude, you won’t speak a word; and if you don’t speak a word, you’ll never improve. It’s a lesson worth applying elsewhere in life, and I’m not sure you get it from coding.

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