Computer Language Should Satisfy the Foreign Language Requirement for College

20 Ideas in 20 Days — Day 11

Today, admission to most 4-year universities requires 2–3 years of a foreign language in high school. And then more at the college level to graduate.

This is completely outdated.

To best prepare our students for career success, both high-school and college students should be able to make an interest-based choice between foreign language and computer language to fulfill the requirements.

A working knowledge of a computer language is a practically a prerequisite for career preparation today regardless of your major or job choice. It doesn’t matter if you major in business, or communications or if you ever want to build an app. What does matter is that you know what the legos look like and approximately how they fit together so you can imagine the possibilities.

This one single change (universities allowing computer language to fulfill the foreign language requirement) has the potential to make the U.S. workforce more competitive within four to five years. An added benefit would be to increase the number of high school students graduating with a marketable, potentially high-wage skill.

I see two primary arguments against this idea and have a counter to both:

  1. U.S. students should be able to communicate in a language other than English. But studying a single language only allows communication with the population that speaks that language. If you learn a computer language you can universally communicate with other programmers.
  2. Learning a foreign language requires the brain to think in a new way. Learning a computer language also requires learning a new thought process, new syntax and new “grammar” structures. The only major difference is that you don’t speak a computer language.

Please hear me that I am in no way advocating that foreign language be removed from high school or college. But I do think we should be giving students a choice, given the role that code plays in today’s global economy. Learning Python or Java is no harder than learning French or Spanish. And it’s quite a bit easier than learning Chinese or another language with a different alphabet.

I studied a foreign language for four years in high school and another two semesters in college. Do you know how often that’s been useful to me in my career? No times. How about in my travels? Maybe five times.

Because I didn’t learn it at school, I’ve taught myself enough code to be conversant and it’s been hugely helpful. When I was leading a project staffed restructure and overhaul a website, it made a significant difference in my credibility and also the time to completion. Because I knew what was possible.

Right now I’m taking Udacity’s Intro to Computer Science class because I want to better understand the possibilities of data science as it applies to business strategy. And communicating with code is a fundamental building block that gets me to that goal.

The biggest obstacle to this proposal is the colleges themselves. For institutions filled with smart people they are incredibly slow to change. No matter how strong the imperative. To get there the committee on committees will need to form a committee to study it, debate it and make a recommendation. It would need approval from faculty, departments, deans and finally provosts. And to make any impact in the near term, this change would need to happen at many colleges at once. I get frustrated just thinking about it.

So what do you think? Should colleges allow computer language to substitute for foreign language if that’s the student’s choice?