Computer Coding Could Count As Foreign Language - Should It?
Written by Mike James   
Wednesday, 26 May 2021

We have heard this sort of thing before. Now it's Michigan that is planning a bill to allow computer languages to count as foreign languages for the purpose of high school graduation. Is this another big misunderstanding? The answer is yes and no.


I can remember when I was applying for my first job and a requirement was "speak one foreign language" and I had none. But a well-meaning girl friend told me not to worry - after all I had Fortran. Well meaning indeed, but it revealed a gap in understanding - Fortran versus a natural language was no contest. The two are very different, no matter what easing of the argument you want to indulge in. Natural languages are so much more complex, subtle and irregular as to be in a different league to any computer language which are limited, logical and difficult to use in a completely different way. Learning French, I was no good at. Learning any computer language, was and still is, a breeze.

So it is crazy that the Michigan state house is thinking of treating it as such? No not really. Bill sponsor Rep. Greg VanWoerkom spoke about the value of coding in Michigan’s prominent auto and tech industries, as well as it being a good alternative for those kids who struggle with traditional language classes:

“Besides being a hard skill, that employers actually want, coding. helps build soft skills. Coding promotes the use of logic, reasoning, problem solving and creativity,” the Norton Shores Republican said. “Any professional coder will tell you that to be fluent in coding takes years of practice and a deep understanding of the language.”

I clearly identify with the kids who struggle with traditional language classes, but the alternative view also seems valid. Rep Padma Kuppa said:

“As technology helps the world become more interconnected, our ability to understand and work with others on technical projects around the globe is not only related to the ability to code, but to understand one another,”

Yes, I get that too. But, and this is a huge but... machine translation is progressing so fast that surely we don't NEED everyone to be multi-lingual. I'm not decrying the amazing abilities that some people have to work in more than one natural language, and yes some such people are very, very needed and worthwhile, but why do we think that we need to create many mediocre  language students? Yes I know learning a natural language is good for you, and so is learning a dead language like Latin, but mental assault courses don't come much better than learning to program. It seems to me that swapping natural language qualifications for programming qualifications is a win-win. Of course, part of our problem is that the governing classes tend not to know much about programming and think that what they learned is what should be taught...

So to be clear -- programming languages are not the same as natural languages, but why waste time training people for jobs that are ever-diminishing when you could teach them something with future value that also satisfies the broader need to "think properly".

Thanks to SlashDot for highlighting this turn of events.



More Information

Computer coding could count for foreign language credit under bill

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 26 May 2021 )