French, Spanish and Love are all Languages – but so is Computing

work-731198_960_720The Florida Senate has proposed a plan to offer programming languages to high school students to fulfill foreign language requirements. The plan has sparked conversation and has led to debates among passionate supporters and detractors. Those in favor of the plan cite the increasing importance of technical literacy in an ever-more-digital world, while those opposed question the viability of implementing such a plan, regardless of any potential benefits. The bill is in the process of making its way through the state legislature.

One huge potential problem is the cost of adding such classes to schools in a system that is already plagued by so many financial issues. Jeremy Ring, Florida Senator and former Yahoo executive, has been quick to point out that the idea is to offer computer programming as an optional choice for fulfilling language credits and not as a replacement for foreign languages or as a standalone requirement. Even so, some have questioned whether this would still lead to further inequalities across school districts that have varying affluence and access to computers.

Another point made by the opposition is that languages constructed for specific technical purposes function a lot differently and serve a much different purpose than natural languages used in human conversation, like French or Spanish. Some fear the repercussions of allowing students to opt out of learning natural human languages in favor of constructed computer languages. The relative value of learning a programming language certainly doesn’t negate the value of learning a natural foreign language. Ring’s response to that was To do 9th or 10th grade French and never pick it up again is not going to add value.

While I don’t know that I would put it as strongly as Ring has, he does have a point. Learning natural languages can be a much longer and, in certain ways, more involved process than learning a programming language. Foreign languages can take years to master. I think it may be possible to reap more practical benefits from two years of high school computer programming classes than two years of high school Spanish. That’s not to say natural human languages aren’t valuable. It’s just that personally – as someone who took two years of high school French and forgot most of it and who only started computer programming a couple of years ago – I can say that the lack of introductory computer programming classes in high schools does have negative consequences.

I believe that learning a second natural language is an extremely valuable skill. The thing is that anyone who makes it through an American public high school is at least going to be literate in English. Knowing one language teaches many important concepts about natural languages in general. A student who knows English but chooses not to study another human language will still have a basic understanding of the mechanics and usefulness of natural language.

But as it stands, many students will graduate high school with complete and utter ignorance of programming languages and concepts. So while I wouldn’t say that learning a programming language is a good substitute for learning a foreign language, knowledge of programming is something that is sorely lacking in many high schools. As Ashley Gavin put so well in her TED talk on computer science education, many kids are afraid to pursue computer-related degrees because they seem scary to people who know nothing about them.

I graduated high school with virtually no idea what I wanted to study or do with my life. I took my first programming class in the second semester of my sophomore year of college and shortly thereafter, I decided to follow that trail to its end and pursue a degree in information science. I had never considered studying anything like information or computer science because I had always assumed that it was too hard and only for the extreme geeks and geniuses. I didn’t understand that it was also creative, expressive and an extremely powerful asset in the modern world.

Many of the jobs in highest demand today are positions in the technology and programming fields. Had I been exposed to programming in high school and found that I enjoyed it, I know that I would have been able to take greater advantage of my time in school and would have explored my field of study in greater depth. I can’t really say that I regret making the decision to wait so long before getting into programming, because it wasn’t really a decision I consciously made; it just always seemed out of my reach.

Whether or not I have faith in the public school system to effectively teach programming, or any other subject for that matter, is a completely different discussion that I won’t go into here. There are many issues with our school system that have been addressed by people in positions much more qualified to make those judgements than I.

That aside, I do believe that, going forward, strong computer skills and knowledge of programming languages and concepts are only going to become more critical. If our public school system wants to claim that it prepares students for entering the real world, it would be remiss not to consider offering kids these skills. For those not in high school anymore, I would like you to know it’s not too late to learn. There is a wealth of free and open information on these subjects. Go online and find programming tutorials or sign up for a class at your local community college. Even if you never become a code monkey or hacker, it can never hurt to learn something new. And I can assure you that you will emerge with a greater understanding of the complex world in which we live.