The New Foreign Language: Computer Programming? | TechWell

The New Foreign Language: Computer Programming?

Should I take French, Spanish, German—or JavaScript, HTML, or Python? This is a question that more and more students in the United States public education system could be asking themselves as they choose their future courses. In several states, including Kentucky, the Senate and local governments are pushing to have programming languages count for foreign language requirements.

This new wave in public education makes plenty of sense to Kentucky senator David Givens, who points out that there will be an estimated one million new programming jobs available in the US by the year 2020. Givens believes that his state isn’t preparing students to land jobs in the growing computer industry and that learning a programming language will prove as—if not more—beneficial than learning a foreign language.

New Mexico is also following the trend with state senator Jacob Candelaria noting that the push for programming to qualify as a foreign language credit toward a diploma isn’t meant to replace the traditional foreign language subjects, but instead to offer students an opportunity to take new courses that can help them gain skills appropriate for a computer-oriented economy.

Candelaria told the Albuquerque Journal: “Districts could still teach Latin, French or Spanish, but it provides the incentive for them to incorporate coding into their curriculum without it being an unfunded mandate.”

However, not everyone is on board with the new legislation. Lucky Tran, a scientist with a PhD in molecular biology from Cambridge, isn’t ready to start claiming that JavaScript is equivalent to Spanish. Although Tran agrees on the importance of learning programming at a young age, the need for speaking a foreign language is still there. Tran worries that this legislation might make the US education system fall even further behind its European counterparts.

Computer languages are cool and all, but let’s face it: U.S. education is already way too isolationist, so saying that Javascript or C++ is equivalent to Spanish or Mandarin in the curriculum seems a bit off given the positive cross-cultural learning advantage that comes with speaking a foreign language. Given only 15-20% of Americans consider themselves bilingual compared to over 50% of Europeans, I’d hope that new legislation like this wouldn’t further hinder spoken language education.

Others think the legislation to start counting programming languages as a foreign language credit in public schools doesn’t go far enough. California representative Tony Cardenas has proposed a piece of legislation in Congress that would provide incentives to public schools to start teaching computer programming languages to students as early as kindergarten. 

Regardless of where lawmakers stand on the issue of programming languages being taught in schools, the time to start discussing programming as a staple of an American education is now.

Do you think teaching coding in public schools is a good idea? Do you think students should learn programming if it means they are not taught a foreign language? What has helped you more in your career: a programming language or a foreign language? Tell us in the comments below.

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