Coding Should Not Replace Foreign Language Requirements [Opinion]

In late 2013, Texas passed legislation allowing high school students to replace foreign language graduation requirements with computer science credits.

In the two years since, several states have proposed similar legislation, including Florida, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Washington, and Kentucky. Although the issue is currently dormant (as most state legislatures are in recess), it is likely that public discussion of whether instruction in computer science could or should replace the study of foreign language will resume this fall, in preparation for the resumption of legislative sessions early next year.

Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen observed in 2011 that “software is eating the world,” describing the ubiquity of software-based activity. Not long before Texas introduced its landmark legislation, Wired magazine opined that for the foreseeable future, the demand for coding jobs is likely to surpass the demand for Mandarin fluency, and therefore, instruction in computer programming or coding should trump foreign language training when resources are limited.

The benefits of learning to program are fairly obvious. The ability to construct automated systems to solve problems is an eminently employable skill, likely to become even more so in the coming years.

By contrast, the case for foreign language ability is less obvious, at least as far as direct employment potential is concerned. After all, English is the global language of commerce. Europeans are often multilingual by necessity; NATO, for example, conducts its operations in English. Multilingual ability is also increasingly prevalent in Asian and African markets. Many native English speakers may feel that there is no need to learn a foreign language when they can often communicate readily in English. In addition, the direct application of foreign language ability is not as immediately obvious as that of programming knowledge. People who learn to program can get (often high-paying) jobs as programmers. People who learn to speak Spanish or French or Japanese may find that their linguistic skills do not as readily translate to clearly-defined careers.

So is foreign language instruction necessary for native English speakers? In a word: yes.

Human vs. Computer Languages

In its most basic form, programming is essentially the act of feeding a predetermined set of instructions to a machine that interprets and executes them. The simplest computer scripts are comparable to recipes. Programming exercises are an essentially linear, deductive, goal-oriented form of thinking. Unlike a recipe for cooking, however, programming can be unforgivingly rigid. There is an oft-repeated saying that “computers do what you tell them to do, not what you want them to do.” Beginner (and non-beginner) programmers often grapple with the exactitude required for writing programs. You could, for example, ruin an entire database with a misplaced bracket.

Human-to-human communication, on the other hand, is idiomatic, expressive, and often downright ambiguous. (Consider that the word “private” can refer to a military rank, a body part, exclusivity, or ownership.) People, of course, are not machines, and while they are certainly more accommodating than computers, they are also less compliant and predictable. One can’t feed verbal inputs into a person and perfectly predict the resulting behavior. To the extent that foreign language instruction is an exercise in interpersonal communication, computer programming of any stripe is a very poor substitute.

Another distinction between human and computer language has to do with translatability. Some programming languages can be described as Turing-complete, meaning that they can express the universe of computable algorithms and procedures and can, in principle, be translated from one another. By contrast, human languages are shaped by historical, cultural, and environmental contexts; there are many well-known instances of words and sentiments that cannot be translated from one language into another.

There is a final important practical difference between human language and computer language; human languages have evolved over thousands of years, whereas computer languages — at least so far — have had much shorter lives, and shorter half-lives: They emerge and become obsolete in sometimes startlingly brief intervals.

Variation in Technological Literacy

There is reason to be somewhat skeptical of the claim that “coding is the new literacy.” The ability to code is one of many possible tools a person can leverage in the digital economy. For the foreseeable future, the digital economy belongs to those whose skills complement the strengths of machines. This applies not only to programmers, developers, and engineers, but also to chess experts who can supplement the raw computational power of computers with human creativity to win chess matches, marketers who are able to leverage the power of social media, machinists who can use AutoCAD and laser-sintering 3-D printers, businesspeople who understand how the Internet can provide novel solutions to problems and generate value, and designers who understand the intersection among Web interfaces, art, and psychology. Many of the emerging industries and most sought-after technology job titles are essentially interdisciplinary. Computer programming, or the use of computers, is typically just one component. Coding, then, is a single facet of technological literacy.

Allowing coding or even computer science to displace other forms of instruction belies their prominence in real-world commerce. The workforce will not largely consist of people who primarily develop software for a living. Even wildly successful software companies like Facebook and Google only employ, respectively, about 11,000 and 55,000 people (of whom a relative handful are engineers or developers); contrast that with manufacturers like IBM, which employs more than 430,000 people, or retailers like Wal-Mart, which employs 2.2 million. Despite the well-known shortfall of skilled technology workers, it is unlikely that Internet and software companies will ever approach the employment rolls of manufacturers and retailers.

Need for Intercultural Competence

Peruse any list of the “aims” of education, and you are likely to find occurrences of the word “employability” — but there are also oft-repeated phrases such as “critical thinking,” “civic engagement,” “ethical and moral sense,” and “communication.” Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, specifically identified as important intercultural competence and the ability to live in a culturally and experientially diverse world, citing globalization and the increasing diversity of the American population as contributing factors.

Foreign language instruction (not to mention studying abroad) provides an excellent occasion for students to learn about the histories and experiences of others as well as reexamine their own cultural perspectives. If the purpose of technology is essentially to solve human problems, then it is extremely misguided to shortchange any sort of education that engages with humanity and culture.

A Well-Rounded Education

The argument leveled against foreign language instruction in favor of computer science and programming appears similar to that leveled against art, music, and other subjects somehow deemed nonessential. With every publication from the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) or Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the pendulum swings toward the goal of “practical” skills and employability. Meanwhile, psychometric tests of creativity have registered continually declining scores in creative thinking for decades. Arts education is frequently slashed despite its demonstrable benefits for general cognition and academic ability.

The bottom line is that while computer programming is important to learn, it should not displace instructional time and resources for other disciplines, and it should also not be considered comprehensive with respect to general technological literacy. As some schools have shown in their pioneering work with art, perhaps the answer lies not in a discrete course that replaces one academic priority with another, but rather in the integration of technology into every aspect of education — including foreign language instruction.

Get the latest updates and opinions on education-related news. You can also find more expert advice and ask questions about education technology.