Computer Programming as a Foreign Language

Just last week the Kentucky Senate passed a bill by which computer programming classes would count towards a student’s foreign language requirement in high school. Although at first I wanted to see this as a boon for teenagers who would now have the ability to enter college or the workforce better technologically prepared, just as the bill’s proponents and Jim Dalrymple, who originally linked to this piece do, I’m not entirely sure this is a good thing after all.

Public schools have almost universally terrible programming courses, a claim I can confidently base on both anecdotal evidence from friends who have taken these types of classes in the past and from seeing the code former students write immediately after graduation. With the exception of one person, I have never heard anyone speak highly of their programming experience in a public high school. Even before becoming proficient at this task, most realized how far this offering came from covering anything but the most rudimentary of basics. Worse, though, because for some any introduction — no matter how shallow — could prove sufficiently interesting to merit further exploration outside of school, the aforementioned friend’s teacher taught him to use HTML tags deprecated fourteen years ago (this was just last year, fifteen years ago as of this writing) and nothing about modern web technologies and frameworks. Perhaps other schools have better programs, but if this institution failed to properly educate its students in such a basic skill as web programming, how much faith should anyone have in its ability to teach more complex languages and concepts necessary to vie for competitive positions after school? If he still used <center /> tags to position his content, what does that say for his knowledge of C?

And then, as if masquerading as a way in which to gain valuable technical was not enough, this new workaround will — if voted into law — deprive innumerable children of the ability to understand another language besides English. To this critique many will undoubtedly object saying that they have not used their chosen foreign language since graduating high school, but that completely misses the point: just because you never put enough effort into learning Spanish for the requisite two years between the age of sixteen and eighteen to get anything out of it does not mean that there is no value in exposing yourself to another culture through the study of its language. Perhaps if you had applied yourself, you could have taken that study abroad trip to Spain during college, and who knows what formative life experiences you could have had there. Or maybe if you had learned French, for instance, you would have later gone on to visit the Eiffel Tower; maybe you would have pursued a career as a mime. Had you instead learned German, you might have spent sixteen days drunk in Munich at Oktoberfest. I can’t think of a single college student who wouldn’t love that. All joking aside though, the point stands: there is so much more to learning a foreign language than merely having the ability to say “Hello” in more ways than one.

Over the last five years or so, I have studied Latin, Spanish, and Chinese for two, one, and closing in on three years now, respectively. Although I cannot remember everything I learned about Latin, I do remember some things, and those frequently come in handy when writing. Similarly with Spanish, I don’t remember everything I learned in the short period of time I was taught it. I do, however, recall bits and pieces here and there, and there is no doubt in my mind that I am better for it and for the greater knowledge of this ethnicity that study fostered. Chinese, on the other hand, remains a work in progress, and as such I learn more of the language as each week goes by. Just as interesting to me as the language, though, is the fascinating culture so different than the one I am used to here in the middle of the United States. It’s absolutely fascinating, and something that I plan to experience firsthand in the very near future with a few years of practice mastering the language under my belt.

These are experiences and skills kids who choose to study C in school will never have. At seventeen I’m sure I would have chosen C over Chinese given the choice, and so while I cannot fault the kids who take this route for choosing so, that does not mean I will not feel sorry for them.