Should Coding be the “New Foreign Language” Requirement?

January 21, 2014 at 1:27 am 15 comments

I don’t agree that learning a foreign language is as useful as learning a programming language, especially in terms of increased communication capability (so I wouldn’t see it as equivalent to a foreign language requirement). I see learning a foreign language as far more important and useful.  It is interesting to think about cognitive effects of learning programming that might be similar to the cognitive effects of learning another human language.

Learning a language increases perception. Multilingual students are better at observing their surroundings. They can focus on important information and exclude information that is less relevant. They’re also better at spotting misleading data. Likewise, programming necessitates being able to focus on what works while eliminating bugs. Foreign language instruction today emphasizes practical communication — what students can do with the language. Similarly, coding is practical, empowering and critical to the daily life of everyone living in the 21st century.

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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bonnie  |  January 21, 2014 at 7:21 am

    Absolutely not. American students need more foreign language, not less. And learning computer science is not the same thing as learning a language. It is important in its own right – a different way of thinking about problems – and cannot be reduced to the mechanics of a language. Trying to conflate the two is a serious mistake.

  • 2. dennisfrailey  |  January 21, 2014 at 8:10 am

    Will teaching prople to program lead to even sloppier use of natural language? I ask this because I find that programmers, who must use programming languages with strict adherence to spelling and grammatical rules (and are generally adept at that), are among the sloppiest when it comes to the spelling and grammatical rules of natural language. Over and over I hear the argument that “if you understand what I mean, grammar and spelling don’t matter”. I’m “old school”. I was educated at a time when such things did matter and when doing it right was considered a sign of the educated person. Today it is sometimes seen as a sign of the anachronistic.

    Just as correct programming depends on precise following of the (sometimes arcane) rules of the programming language, so too precise communication (and, dare one say, precise thinking) depends on correct use of grammar and spelling. I wonder why the two are viewed so differently by many programmers.

  • 3. dennisfrailey  |  January 21, 2014 at 8:23 am

    One must ask what the purpose is of a foreign language reauirement. If it is to open their minds to a new way of thinking, then programming may serve that purpose. If it is to give them a useful skill, programming a spreadsheet may be a more valuable subject since, despite all the talk about programming as a universal skill, I still see few professions where coding is a necessary part of daily practice.

  • 4. astrachano  |  January 21, 2014 at 8:33 am

    “Learning a foreign language is not as useful as learning a programming language.” — first, I agree. It’s far more useful. Second, in terms of students in the world, that seems to me to be a narrow, American-centric view. Now, if by ‘useful’, we really mean ‘utilitarian’, I’m still not in agreement, but if we’re educating our children for primarily utilitarian (synonyms: practical, functional, workaday,serviceable) reasons/concerns — then, well, no thank you, that’s not how I view a university/college education, though it’s a component of it.

    If everyone in the world knew their native tongue and Java, compared to knowing their native tongue and another natural language —- well, again, no thank you. We should be teaching our children and students to be both multilingual and multicultural, and knowing Spanish or Chinese or French (for those in United States) is more important to my way of thinking about education than is learning Java, Python, Ruby, C++, or even Lua.

  • 5. dennisfrailey  |  January 21, 2014 at 9:08 am

    One irony is that most programming languages taught today will be out of widespread use in 10-20 years. Coding is a useful skill that teaches much but it should not substitute for foreign languages. Students can benefit from both to survive in today’s world. There’s plenty of “fluff” in US high school curricula. We should focus on subjects that will help enrich their lives and prepare then for their careers.

    • 6. Bonnie  |  January 22, 2014 at 9:16 am

      Learning a foreign language is useful even if you do not learn to communicate well in that language. For one thing, it helps people realize that there are other cultures and ways of seeing the world besides the Anglo-American viewpoint. It exposes kids to different grammars and ways of expressing oneself. For example, I took a year of Japanese in college, and though I can’t say anything useful in Japanese, I am still fascinated by the very different grammar system, the three alphabets, and the many, many ways to be polite in Japanese. My kids learn Chinese. Chinese is a very different language from either Japanese or English. There are many homonyms, and lots of Chinese jokes and sayings revolve around those homonyms. Plus, learning a few characters at least helps us appreciate a major way in which the Chinese gain unity. Learning any language helps kids understand how language frames our thinking and cultural patterns.

  • 7. Franklin Chen  |  January 21, 2014 at 9:09 am

    Programming languages and human languages are very different and neither is a substitute for the other in any kind of function, I think. In particular, a good programming language should be completely different from a natural language, being precise and ambiguous, while a foreign language allows one to experience a different set of implicit assumptions, ambiguity, and irrationality from that embedded in one’s first language. Of course, one can study C++ and Java and also learn about historical contingency and the mindset of their creators and their influencers and the communities that grew up surrounding these languages, but few do this, and it is not standard, as far as I know, to teach the history and sociology of computing, including that of programming languages, as part of a standard curriculum.

  • 8. Dennis (the other one)  |  January 21, 2014 at 10:20 am

    As Dennis Frailey says, the answer to the question depends on the purpose of the foreign language requirement. I completely agree and therefore, won’t attempt to answer the question. However, consider the difference in learning one semester of intro to French (substitute ‘French’ with any non-native natural language you prefer) to the learning in one semester intro to computing in which the students ‘learn Java’ (substitute ‘Java’ with any programming language you like). I would argue that a student is much more likely to learn something potentially life-changing in a one semester computing class than in one semester of French, even if the language learned in the computing course becomes obsolete in a few years (or even a few decades).

    • 9. astrachano  |  January 21, 2014 at 10:35 am

      Interesting, I think I agree with the one-semester view, but rather than a one semester of learning Java, I’d go with a one semester of learning about CS Principles (but I have my own biases here)

  • 10. Cecily Heiner  |  January 21, 2014 at 11:19 am

    I think the comparing-computing-to-foreign-language-credit conversation is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, most high schools do NOT require foreign language credit for graduation, but most colleges DO require foreign language for entrance. This creates a different dynamic in these high school classes than would exist if the class were required for high school graduation. I also think it is interesting to consider whether or not credit is the best way to motivate learning these things. I finished college trilingual, but never took a foreign language class at the college level. I did spend a lot of my childhood and adolescent years with friends who spoke other languages as fluently or more fluently than English, so I was probably more motivated than typical to learn languages for practical reasons like communication!

  • 11. andyjko  |  January 21, 2014 at 11:43 am

    I’m absolutely in favor of creating new incentives to learn computing, but not at the expense of a multifaceted humanist education. We need developers who are more empathetic and more culturally aware, not less. Foreign language learning is a doorway to other cultures, other history, other religions, and even other ideas about the world. Computing education isn’t really a doorway to any of these things: it’s a way of thinking about the artificial world, not the human one (or, at the very least, it’s a way of thinking about the natural and human world in artificial terms).

    If anything, I think we need a more significant shift in how we think about a balanced education. Humanities and science students should be required to learn more about artificial worlds, and engineers more about the humanity.

  • […] scope of the Chicago plan is impressive.  In case you thought that the idea of offering foreign language credit for CS was a joke, it’s being considered as part of the Chicago plan.  The rationale for the plan […]

  • 13. Greg  |  February 4, 2014 at 1:53 am

    First, I am not against anyone who knows or wants to know a foreign language but measures should be taken to eliminate foreign language as a requirement. Having worked with several students over the years I can see how the cons stack up against the pros. In the end I think it should be available but optional. I may have to break this into a couple of sections but here goes:

    Argument 1: LEARNING A FOREIGN LANGUAGE IS AN ADVANTAGE FOR YOUR CAREER. I don’t disagree with this but will also say that it can heavily depend on what career you seek, personal ambition and ability to learn the language. Many grads do their mandatory foreign language requirement and spend the majority of their careers using English only. After some time, retention of the learned language diminishes greatly. This should also take into account the low fluency rate achieved upon exiting the foreign language course in the first place. I earlier mentioned personal ambition to learn the language. Many students do not want to take a foreign language and so they choose whatever seems easiest or try to find some other method to skirt the system. This counters what the requirement is trying to achieve in the first place and ends up costing people wasted time and money. Surprise surprise…many people do not like being forced into taking a course they don’t intend to use. Likewise, there is growing research that indicates disabilities exist in learning a foreign language. This leads to…

    Argument 2: LEARNING A FOREIGN LANGUAGE WILL MAKE YOU MORE CULTURALLY DIVERSE. It can, but so can studying a culture. If you personally want to delve into the nuances to become so astute in a foreign language that you gain deep cultural understanding…wonderful. Will you understand at this deep level within a couple of mandatory semesters? To say yes would be insulting to that particular culture. Again, there is no better way to help people appreciate a culture than to force them to learn and hold their GPA as hostage. In some cases it just leads to resentment. I consulted a student who nearly went to tears because she came close but did not make the 3.5 GPA requirement for grad school. She received a C in Spanish, the only C on her transcript. Now, she is very bitter about foreign language study. Another bright Engineering student remorsefuly sought out a program that did not have the foreign language requirement because he felt it would be an obstacle. I do admit many students really like the experience, but it really does hurt many students as well. Let people savor and experience cultures in a way that sparks their interest. Force feeding culture is just bad practice.

    more to come in part 2..

  • 14. Greg  |  February 4, 2014 at 2:38 am

    Part 2

    ARGUMENT 3: I’ll leave this one lowercase as it has been brought up to me by the students and staff but never formalized. Equality and seat filling . If you already know a foreign language you can simply test out or bypass the process and be on your way. If not, you must spend time and money to take these courses. This can be frustrating for those who don’t feel they will need a foreign language. A myriad of hypotheticals will arise where proponents of the requirement will say what if this…or what if that arises and the language becomes useful. Unfortunately this becomes a weak argument in the fact that they day may never come. It’s easy to say but much harder when your dollars, time, and grades are at stake. Some staff has complained students get so bewildered by having to learn the foreign language that they lose focus of their degree dependant courses and suffer as a result. Likewise, some will resort to cheating (never good no mater what the case) to “get through” the language course. This totally undermines the good intentions of the foreign language course. Also, there are some who feel a bureacracy exists in certain programs where the requirement is a method to ensure seats are filled in low foreign language programs. This is a truly sad way of mining students.

    ARGUMENT 4: SUBSTITUTION, DISABILITY, AND STANDARDIZING/SIDSTEPPING. Some programs will let you substitute “culture” courses instead of foreign language but this is usually only offered after much paperwork and often a trial by fire at the disability office if you are deemed to have a Foreign Language Learning Disorder. Why must you go through this? Because it has been deemed you have to be more culturally diverse though speaking a foreign language and that other countries may already have the jump on you. Having worked with many graduate level students from around the world, I can tell you this is a little skewed. They usually have more understanding of pop culture than English culture or language reading/writing/speaking English proficiency. Many have been studying for some time and have decided to immerse themselves in the U.S education system to get as far as they have. In several cases the English some were “taught” for those one or two semesters is, well, let’s just say not good. If the opposite is true at all, our foreign language requirement will do little to truly impress. Couple that with the fact that a large number of students don’t want to take the class to begin with. Hence cometh the sidestepping that students and administration juggle around. What can we use as a foreign language instead of a spoken language. Well, there is sign language, computer language, and every other possiblilty never originally intended. Perhaps we get out of the requirement by speaking British English as a foreign language, because well, England is a different country after all. As silly as this sounds, somebody will run with the notion.

    In the end, the requirement tries to do good, but forcing people is the wrong approach. There are some deep seated feeling about both sides of the case and each have merits. As adults, we should have the right to choose what we think is best for us in many personal matters, and this is one of them. Agree or disagree, but respect the choice and drop the requirement.

  • […] states are making computing courses count as foreign language courses (even if that’s a bad idea),  it’s worthwhile to consider what the value is of […]


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