Society

Computer Coding Should Not Replace Learning A Language

| by Robert Fowler
Students in a foreign language classStudents in a foreign language class

In a rapidly evolving economy, learning how to code has become one of the most advantageous skills in securing a quality job. Some schools are adopting the bright idea of teaching students coding -- this is good. They are swapping out foreign language to do this -- which is about as short-sighted as it gets.

Becoming fluent in 21st century technology is a common-sense skill to teach students. But making foreign language the collateral damage is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Both studies are integral to becoming a highly employable adult in the modern, ever-shrinking world.

On Feb. 24, the Florida Senate passed legislation that would enable the state’s high school students to take coding instead of, say French or Spanish, to fulfill their foreign language requirement, WUFT reports.

Florida’s not the only state considering this -- New Mexico and California legislatures are also mulling bills that would make coding the equivalent of learning a foreign language, according to the Daily Titan, the student newspaper of California State University, Fullerton.

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The states that have handled this correctly are Arkansas and Kentucky, which have in the past two years carved out coding as a separate credit that does not need to share the same space as learning how to speak a foreign language.

The first point that springs to mind is that computer coding simply should not qualify as a language.

Sure, Florida teacher Carrie Davis of Eastside High School has made a compelling argument that learning coding is similar to learning a foreign language because “it’s like a puzzle they are building. They have to know which pieces to put together to create a program that you can communicate though.”

While learning the structure of computer coding does not compete with absorbing the fluid, socially informed intricacies of German, Latin or Arabic.

Software engineer Valerie Woolard summed the distinction up nicely in a Slate editorial when she stated “computers and the code that powers them are literal, emotionless, strict and free of nuance and ambiguity. Human language is anything but."

This emerging trend of considering coding an acceptable alternative to learning a new way of communicating is doubly distressing when, thanks to pioneering teachers, the country is on the cusp of finally teaching foreign language effectively.

New Jersey schools have started changing how they teach foreign languages, emphasizing immersion over using flashcards and testing recall. Students are now being taught courses in science and history completely in Spanish, New Jersey 101.5 reports.

“Gone are the days of saying, ‘This is a noun, this is a verb, this is how you conjugate,’” said Spanish teacher Dana Pilla of Haddonfield Middle School. “We don’t do that anymore. That’s not so useful in real life.”

This technique shifts foreign language from a tedious piece-by-piece learning experience to an immersive and social experience. This method can transform foreign language from a thorny requirement that students suffer through only to flush out of memory later into an essential tool that can land them a great job down the road.

“We’re preparing them for a real-life skill,” Pilla said. “We’ve moved away from this idea that language is taught in a vacuum. No, you’re speaking language for a purpose, and it’s for communication.”

Students should have the option to learn coding but that should not make foreign language optional.

The two subjects should complement each other, not compete for attention," Peter Swanson observed in a SunSentinel op-ed. "If a student learns to code but not to communicate or to interact with other cultures, how can that student go on to have a successful career in global technology (or any other field, for that matter)?"

For states where curriculums do not have the space to making computer coding its own distinct credit, there has to be another field of study that can be swapped out instead.

Perhaps coding should become an alternative to Algebra II, a course that holds back many students and is a specialized field that many never use in practical life. As Slate’s Dana Goldstein observed, “it’s probably a good idea to give students multiple math pathways toward high school and college graduation — some less challenging than others.”

After all, coding has more in common with math than it does foreign language.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: Daily TitanNew Jersey 101.5, Slate (2), SunSentinelWUFT / Photo credit: Jonathan Burkhardt / The Biola University Chimes

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