Should schools teach computer code as a foreign language?

A new bill passed by the Kentucky Senate counts computer programming classes toward fulfilling foreign-language requirements in public schools. Parents debate whether coding should be a supplement to, or a replacement for, foreign language classes.

Jake May/The Flint
In this file photo, third-graders Jojuane White, 8, left, and Eddie Turner, 9, focus on learning coding techniques through playing an "Angry Birds" game at Brownell/Homes Elementary School in Flint, Mich.

Many parents would agree kids learning coding is great for their future job prospects, but a new bill passed by the Kentucky Senate to count computer programming classes toward fulfilling foreign-language requirements in public schools leads to a debate over this is as a step forward or backward in education.

According to my favorite tech site, Gizmodo, “rather than taking three years of Spanish or French or whatever, kids can choose to learn to code.”

The Gizmodo writers point out, “whether it's Java or German, they're both technically languages. But they're also two very different skills.”

“The goal is to enhance programming skills, enabling more Kentucky students to land high-paying jobs in the growing computer industry,” said Sen. David Givens (R), the bill’s sponsor told the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama gave technology a starring role as he called on us to better prepare students to become more qualified employees for growing tech sectors.

“Today in America ... an entrepreneur flipped on the lights in her tech startup, and did her part to add to the more than 8 million new jobs our businesses have created over the past four years," said Mr. Obama. 

The challenges in adding a topic like coding to the curriculum include limited school resources, such as in-class time, teachers qualified to handle this topic, and availability of the technology necessary to teach coding. These challenges could be exacerbated in Title One areas around the country.

However, coding could offer a valid alternative to kids who lag behind in traditional foreign language classes – especially those students who are interested more in math and science programs.

According the Courier-Journal,  this bill is tricky, as it tries to lead the charge to allow programming classes to slip into the mix by satisfying foreign-language requirements.

“To acquire that depth of knowledge, we’ve got to find a way in this constrained curriculum … for students to begin these areas of studies earlier in high school,” Senator Givens told the Courier-Journal.

Givens asserts that the bill would give high school seniors the chance to take higher-level computer courses, and he sites that college-bound students in Kentucky are expected to take at least two foreign language credits.

It seems that parents are still split on the proposed curriculum updates, according to conversations among parents on Facebook about the issue.

James Previti, a programmer and father of three from Medford, N.J., says that learning code and a foreign language achieve different results. "Computer 'languages' are for creating instructions for the actions of computers. Spoken languages are for the communication of ideas ... a realm not likely to be occupied by computers anytime soon. The clear communication of ideas is much more important for our race than computer instructions." 

Trevor Lewis, cofounder of 757 MakerSpace, replied in favor of the change. “Spoken/written languages are important but in learning a traditional language you're only taught a minor portion of that language. Sure, you get structure, verbiage, tenses, but learning a computer language teaches you the logic behind the use. Programming languages are a vastly better method of teaching language in general than even traditional English classes and can be directly applied to not just learning foreign languages later but understanding how language applies to the sciences.”

Mr. Lewis asserts, “it wasn't until I took a structured programming class that I was able to look at an incredibly complex language like Japanese and be able to suss out the structure and reasoning behind it.”

Lewis's business partner at 757 Makerspace, Beau Turner, a father of two, says “Having the option would be a great opportunity as socio-economic classes continue to have greater division."

Mr. Turner also suggests parents read the book “Program or Be Programmed” to get a better handle on the issue.

The debate is bound to continue, as parents and educators wade through the details of how coding may supplement, or replace, foreign language requirements. For now, the Kentucky bill is an invitation to discuss how the future of coding may work in schools.

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