Coding languages are not world languages

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I respect the place that computer science has in 21st century education.

In my 1996 electrical engineering class at Yale, we created websites using code. This fall, my children carved icy designs with Elsa at hourofcode.org. But to suggest that coding ought to fulfill the world language requirement in Florida, where legislators recently approved a bill to allow high school students to earn foreign language credit for computer science classes, misses the point of world languages as a critical part of 21st education.

Senior members of Code.org agree that coding does not allow for meaningful communication among people. Cameron Wilson, vice president of government affairs at Code.org, recently stated that “…a computer language is really only used to communicate to a computer on how to execute codes on a machine,” and Amy Hirotaka, the state policy and advocacy manager for Code.org, titled one of her blog posts, “Computer Programming is not a Foreign Language.” Indeed, the ability to code is a 21st century skill. Coding itself, however, is not a world language.

Biliteracy, bilingualism and their byproducts are 21st century skills, too. Policymakers have passed legislation in 16 states promoting a biliteracy seal on high school diplomas for those who can demonstrate a proficiency in a language other than English. These bills reward students, including many English language learners, for what they can do with their languages.

According to a 2010 analysis in Career Builder, 10 percent of U.S. businesses made bilingualism a desirable qualification in the hiring process. In 2014, that number rose to 46 percent. Over the past month, there have been nearly 1,000 “bilingual” jobs posted by Career Builder – and less than 100 computer programming jobs. We recognize the need for increased world language options; we now need to find the will within individual communities to respect that bilingualism is an important part of college and career readiness.

To suggest that students who struggle with language learning would be better off studying programming does everyone a disservice. It suggests that mastery of computer coding languages like Python and C++ comes quickly (which it does not), and giving the option for struggling students to opt out of world languages sets low standards and expectations of our students—among the most deleterious actions that educators at any level can take.

In addition to meaningful communication, the study of languages engenders a respect for ethnic, racial and linguistic diversity. Our students develop intercultural competency, the knowledge that widens our global perspectives in order to foster a respect for and eradicate a fear of what we do not understand about others. The key to intercultural competency is language learning, and it will not come to students who are pushed exclusively to learn coding instead.

Computer literacy is an important part of a well-rounded education, but it does not prepare our students to be ready for the challenges of a multi-cultural and multi-lingual world of which Florida is a part. Linguistic and cultural proficiency in more than one world language is just as essential for all Florida students in order to be successful in a global society.

Dr. Edward M. Zarrow teaches Latin at Westwood High School
in Westwood, MA. He is the president of
the Classical Association of Massachusetts, the Coordinator of Educational
Programs for the Classical Association of New England, and the ACTFL 2016 National
Foreign Language Teacher of the Year.

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