Is it better to learn a foreign language or computer coding?

coding

 

Florida senator Jeremy Ring recently sparked controversy by proposing a bill that would change state high school requirements: Students would have the option of either taking two years of a foreign language, or two years of computer coding.

In a way, the idea makes sense.  In our heavily computer-reliant world, knowing how to code means a lot of advantages – including, most notably, more career opportunities.

And some people, like Lucia Carney, a Spanish teacher at Gainesville, Florida’s Loften High School, who was quoted in this article, would argue that coding is a language. It’s just that, instead of people, you’re communicating with machines and software.  Among other things, this means coding has a major advantage: like fellow “universal languages,” mathematics and music, coding is understood by users worldwide.

So what’s the big deal if a student wants to study it instead of, say, French or Spanish?  Most people usually forget the language(s) they learn in school anyway, right?  And, as computer science teacher Tina Gennaro points out, two years isn’t enough to be fluent in a foreign language, anyway.  But two years of coding would be sufficient for a student to get an entry-level computer science job.

I’m a translator, bilingual, and teacher of English as a Foreign Language, but I get it.  Still, there are some things people like Gennaro and Ring are forgetting.

For one, learning a foreign language isn’t just memorizing vocabulary and verb tenses.  Whether you’re talking about English, Sanskrit or Klingon, languages also have a culture and history associated with them.  Learning a foreign language is about discovering (a) new culture(s) and ideas and connecting with people.  High school programs often involve trips abroad, exchange students, pen pals, and cultural celebrations.  Students are exposed to literature and films, as well as comic strips, TV shows, and (if they have an ultra-hip teacher) things like YouTube clips from the country or countries that speak the language they’re learning.  They may not retain much of the language if they don’t continue with it. But for a little while at least they were exposed to something they probably wouldn’t have been otherwise.

And that could be life-changing.  I have many friends who didn’t continue with our French classes after high school, but who are much less intimidated by interacting with international clients at work, or traveling to France and navigating, say, the Paris Metro, on their own.  That’s not just due to a basic knowledge of French that’s remained, but, I think, to the fact that they know a bit about the people and places there and aren’t afraid of the unknown.

If career planning is more your concern, foreign languages can also be a major advantage in that area, as I covered in a recent post.  Knowing even the basics of a foreign language can help you with everything from increasing your chances of getting hired, to increasing your company’s client base. In certain careers knowing two or more languages can even help you save lives.  And coding isn’t the only area that offers career prospects; Carney notes that the translation and interpreting field is growing rapidly, citing these Bureau of Labor statistics.

Is it better for high school students to study coding or a foreign language? The arguments for both sides are very clear.  But one thing isn’t: Since knowing either one of these is beneficial in numerous ways, why do we need to choose? Instead of having students pick between coding and a foreign language, why not open their minds and give them a wider range of career choices by making both a part of the required curriculum?

by Alysa Salzberg

 

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