States consider allowing kids to learn coding instead of foreign languages

A former Yahoo executive turned Florida lawmaker is proposing allowing students to take computer science courses as an alternative to two required foreign language classes. But the proposal has been controversial with legislators and advocates for coding, who say foreign languages remain valuable.

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    Third grade students work on a Star Wars coding game at an Apple Store, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015 in New York. A Florida lawmaker has proposed allowing high school students to swap their traditional foreign languages for courses in coding, making the classes a requirement for schools to offer. But the proposal has proved controversial, with foreign languages often facing cutbacks in school budgets.
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¿Hablas C++? In Florida, lawmakers are debating a proposal to swap the two foreign language courses required by the state’s high schools for classes in programming languages such as JavaScript and Python.

The measure, championed by a former Yahoo executive turned state senator, would let students substitute traditional foreign language studies for courses in coding, often seen as key skill in an increasingly technological era.

“This is a global language today,” said Sen. Jeremy Ring (D) of Margate, the bill’s sponsor, at a hearing on Wednesday. “Computers and programming have become part of our global culture."

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There’s growing enthusiasm about teaching coding to American students, with President Obama last weekend unveiling a $4.2 billion plan to expand computer science education, which he said had become “a basic skill, right along with the three ‘R’s” — reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Some Florida students say revamping what we consider a "language" makes sense.

“You can translate languages across the Internet through coding, but you can’t do that without coding,” Brooke Stewart, a 16-year-old sophomore in Tampa, told Reuters, saying she would be interested in exchanging foreign languages for courses in JavaScript or Python, which she has used to design computer games.

But there is also a concern that promoting computer science shouldn’t come at the expense of global languages, a field that’s long been on the chopping block at both K-12 institutions and in some colleges.

“You said that no existing language will be replaced. My experience is when you require something, something is going to fall out, no matter what it is,” Florida Sen. Bill Montford, (D) of Tallahassee, a former teacher and district superintendent, told Senator Ring at a committee hearing in December.

The proposal, which passed the Senate’s Appropriations Committee this week, has often put Ring on the defensive.

“You can still take Latin, Mandarin, German, and now maybe you can also take C++. We’re not replacing foreign language, we’re saying computer language should be in the language disciplines,” he responded in December.

Elsewhere, officials in Kentucky, Georgia, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington have also considered the idea of substituting computer coding credits for foreign language studies in recent years, Reuters reports. Texas began allowing such a swap in 2014, though state officials haven’t tracked how widely it has been used.

Oklahoma also has a similar policy, but it was adopted only because rural schools have struggled to hire foreign language teachers, according to state officials.

“We were not trying to equate the two at all," Desa Dawson, director of world languages for the Oklahoma state education department, told Reuters.

Some Florida lawmakers also wondered about how the bill would address issues of whether all students would have access to the computer hardware required to meet the state requirements.

“It seems like a well-intentioned, well-designed bill, but there are a number of different non-profit programs out there that are trying to address the lack of minority access to coding and coding materials,” said Sen. Dwight Bullard (D) of Cutler Bay, a high school history teacher in Miami, at the December hearing, noting that local districts have also had to cut foreign language programs because of a lack of funding. “Is there a long term goal toward creating parity at school sites?"

Researchers have expressed similar concerns. “One thing we have found is that it can be more challenging to integrate technology into classrooms in low income communities,” Mark Warschauer, a professor of education at the University of California, Irvine told the Monitor last year. “A lot of these communities have higher teacher turnover, administrator turnover, fewer technology-savvy parents, more kids with weaker English language skills. If you just throw technology into schools without the proper social support, technology can amplify inequality.”

Other states have taken a different approach, recognizing coding courses as subject areas in math and science rather than as languages., a prominent non-profit advocating for computer science education, says that may be a better way to tackle the issue.

“Spanish is used to communicate to one another," Cameron Wilson, vice president of government affairs at, which has not taken a position on the Florida bill, told Reuters. “A computer language is really only used to communicate to a computer on how to execute codes on a machine." 

But Senator Ring, who says he got the idea for the bill from his 14-year-old son, was unwavering.

“There’s no question in my mind that computer language is the great equalizer,” he said in December. “We can be the first state in America to do this, or we can be the 50th state in America to do this, it’s gonna happen.”

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