Substituting Computer Science for World Languages is Bad Policy
An Open Letter to Policy Makers
January 31, 2018
Hola Delegates, Representatives and Senators!
My name is Noah Geisel and I had the honor of representing my profession as the 2013 ACTFL National Language Teacher of the Year. I am writing to express profound concern with legislation such as the CODES Act that allow schools to substituting credit in coding classes for Foreign Languages classes in satisfying high school graduation requirements.
I applaud elected leaders for recognizing the importance of Computer Science in preparing many young people for successful futures. That said, this bill is not the way to value Computer Science. In this position paper from Code.org, entitled Computer Science is Not a Foreign Language, the national organization dedicated to providing young people with access to Computer Science addresses bills like this by unequivocally stating: “These efforts could actually undermine the ability of students to have access to this critical field.” It’s an informative read with many important points that I encourage you to check out here.
Beyond the disservice a bill like this does to Computer Science, there is also harm to the preparation of Global Citizens. World Languages classes are about communication through language AND the study of culture. This is evident in both national and state standards. For example, Virginia’s Board of Education explicitly says as much in the Foreign Language Standards of Learning for Virginia Public Schools:
“Learning another language is much more than simply learning about the language system; language study includes the rich cultural content that makes languages and their communities unique” (Board of Education, Commonwealth of Virginia 2014).
While computer code is created in what are called “languages” it is disingenuous to consider these coding languages in the same light as World Languages because, other than the accidental coincidence of shared nomenclature, they are disparate disciplines in every way. A surface-level unpacking a state like Virginia’s own Goals and Strands for Modern World Languages (pages 6–8) clearly illustrates the distinction. Consider these stated goals and strands:
- Effective Communication
- Enhanced Cultural Understanding
- Expanded Access to Information (“Connect with other disciplines through language study, which enables them to understand the interrelationships among content areas.” And “Access information in more than one language making available a greater range of authentic resources and a richer base of knowledge.”)
- Increased Global Perspective
- Interpersonal Communication
- Cultural Perspectives, Practices, and Products
- Making Connections Through Language
- Linguistic and Cultural Comparisons
- Interaction in School and Global Communities
Computer Science classes won’t help students meet these goals and strands. This is not a value judgement against Computer Science! It’s an academically honest assessment. Computer Science isn’t designed to meet these goals. It meets other goals and that’s OK because it’s a different content area altogether.
Just as it would be absurd to substitute a search engine for a car engine, a dinner plate for a tectonic plate, or gym reps for House Reps, policymakers concerned with doing what’s best for kids are misguided to substitute coding languages for World Languages (or World Languages for Computer Science, for that matter).
The aforementioned Code.org position paper shares the perspective that these are distinct academic areas, pointing out, “Coding is more Math and Science than anything else.” It goes on to state:
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.
Again, I applaud your efforts to support Computer Science learning and hope you will recognize that laws such as the CODES Act are not the way to do it. If anything, what’s really needed is legislation that will codify the difference between these two very important areas of study so that future Congresses will be spared going down this road.
Thank you for your time, consideration and service to learners.
2013 ACTFL National Language Teacher of the Year
This letter is shared “cc-by” so feel free to use any or all of it as a resource for communicating and advocating.
Follow Noah Geisel on Medium for more thoughts on Teaching and Learning, and connect with @senorg on Twitter.