THE BLOG
02/20/2014 04:58 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2014

Computer Science Is Not a Foreign Language

Foreign language learning is under attack again, but this time in a rather novel, legislative way. A number of states, including Florida, Kentucky, New Mexico and Texas have recently introduced legislation that would have allowed high school students to use computer programming course credits to satisfy the state's current foreign language graduation requirement. In Oklahoma, it is already a fait accompli.

Proponents of these bills argue that allowing students to choose computer science to fulfill their foreign language requirement will better prepare them for the 21st-century workplace. But among these important skills is the need for students, no matter what career they are considering, to be able to interact with others around the world. Substituting one 21st century skill for another actually hurts students, not helps them. Allowing computer science to replace foreign language credits may actually hinder a student's ability to get into competitive colleges that are increasingly requiring students to have taken two to three years of a foreign language in high school. That doesn't sound like progress, and it won't help students get a better job.

While computer coding is a type of "language" -- and an important one -- academics and educators in both linguistics and computer science do not recognize coding as comparable to speaking another language, which requires person-to-person interaction and understanding of another's culture and context.

That conclusion is even shared by Code.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding participation in computer science education by making it available in more schools and increasing participation by women and underrepresented students of color. The organization also advocates for computer science as part of the core curriculum in all high schools nationwide, alongside other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses, such as biology, physics, chemistry and algebra.

According to Amy Hirotaka, Code.org's state policy and advocacy manager:

"It's more math and science than anything. Computer science fits within the disciplines of math and science, and specifically strengthens math concepts like geometry, functions and variables, as well as science concepts such as experimentation and modeling/simulation. Additionally, computer science is about breaking down large problems, working in sequence and critical thinking. Although we use the term "programming language" to refer to C++, Java, Python, and so on, these aren't natural languages. Spanish has a vocabulary of 10,000 words, with a consistent grammatical and sentence structure. In contrast, a typical computing language has a vocabulary of about 100 words, and the real work is learning how to put these words together to build a complex program."

We agree. Programming languages are not the same as spoken or signed languages. They are expressions of logic, similar to mathematical proofs. As such, it would be much more appropriate to give students math credit for successfully completing a programming language course.

Moreover, decades of research demonstrate the far-reaching benefits of learning a foreign language. Students who study a foreign language will develop the critical skills of adaptability, empathy, communication and relationship building -- skills that can be applied to technology or any other field he or she chooses to pursue. It helps one learn about another culture and enables one to cross cultural bounds more easily, appreciating and understanding differences and similarities. It enhances cognitive abilities and actually makes one "smarter" by enhancing math, science and even English language skills. Being able to speak another language increasingly helps people get jobs and can fast-track careers.

But don't just take our word for it. According to the National Research Council, Americans' "pervasive lack of knowledge about foreign cultures and foreign languages threatens the security of the United States as well as its ability to compete in the global marketplace and produce an informed citizenry." Business leaders agree. A McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) Report "The World at Work: Jobs, Pay and Skills for 3.5 Billion People" found that worldwide, 40 percent of job growth in advanced markets like the U.S. is going to foreign nationals because of language skills and cross-cultural competency.

To be sure, both computer science and foreign language skills are important. Keep the foreign language requirement in and add computer science as a required course.

If you're someone who cares about this issue, share this post with friends, colleagues and educators. If you live in one of the affected states, send this post to your state representatives with a cover letter stating your opposition to the legislation. And if you've heard that your state may be considering this, get in touch with ACTFL right away. We have to work together to make language learning a requirement in our K-12 education system to help our students succeed on a global scale!

Marty Abbott is the coauthor of this article. She is currently the Executive Director for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Prior to coming to ACTFL in 2004, Marty was a language teacher, language supervisor and the Director of High School Instruction for the Fairfax County Public Schools (VA).