Earnest: K-12 foreign language requirements — is coding a viable substitute?

Chad Earnest

Almost everyone that went through the K-12 school system took at least a couple of years of some type of foreign language. Be it Chinese, Spanish or French, public high schools and colleges want students to have an introductory understanding of different cultures and languages.

Although the particular high school that I attended didn’t require students to take foreign language courses directly, it was still considered an important thing to have on your transcript when applying to college. However, Florida Senator Jeremy Ring is proposing that K-12 institutions offer computer programming courses that would count as foreign language courses when being transferred to a higher institution.

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Being a former Yahoo executive, Ring is no stranger to the tech industry and the growing demand for software engineers. One article included a statement by Caroline Joiner from Tech Net, who basically said that by 2020 there will be a million more jobs that require sufficient computing skills. So the demand is certainly there for individuals to enter the tech industry, but that isn’t the end goal to including programming courses in K-12 curriculum.  

So programming related jobs are expected to grow, however, what exactly justifies passing Jeremy Ring’s SB 468 and requiring schools to satisfy two foreign language credits for a student taking a programming course? Well to clear up any confusion about what this bill would do in the first place, foreign language courses would not be replaced by coding courses, but coding would rather be added onto the repertoire of what is classified as a foreign language course.

This begins to raise flags for those who believe that kids would flee from Spanish to taking a course on Bash Scripting or C++ over Spanish I or an equivalent. I’m compelled to agree with that argument myself, but programming languages are considered foreign to a considerable population of our planet, so any student who would like to take a programming course over a Spanish course would still be challenging themselves to think and learn differently. Of course there are those who consider foreign languages to be a fundamental part of any K-12 curriculum due to the cultural literacy that could be gained. I agree with this, and believe that students should still be encouraged to take typical foreign language courses, but the argument above also applies to coding as well.  

Greg Pollack, the founder of Code School, posted in a personal editorial that code doesn’t necessarily need to be learned by every person, but rather the fundamentals should be taught to give the current generation a better idea about how our world of computing technology works. Basically computer literacy should be taught to make sure that the line of understanding and communication between engineers and non-engineers is more leveled out. Essentially by understanding a foreign language in the sense of coding, communication could be improved in high-tech industries for instance — much like how understanding Chinese might be beneficial in a business setting as well depending on the circumstances. 

So would this bill be detrimental to the growth of kids in the K-12 school system? No, it would benefit kids to no avail having access to the languages that are used to create and moderate in our increasingly digital world.

Simply put, Florida’s K-12 school system wouldn’t turn out worse-off kids if they had basic programming skills going into college or other avenues of enlightenment. Sure, some kids would rather take a programming course than a Spanish course, but this could be solved by revising the bill to include the requirement of taking one other foreign language course before entering into a programming course. This would eliminate worries and those kids that would enter programming courses, and in theory they would just come out more well-rounded than their fellow students who only took a typical foreign language course.  

Everyone wins, and cultural and computing literacy would increase. The possibilities that could come from this being implemented nationwide could help kids to better understand the power of coding, which could lead to more American students taking up computing science-related majors, and also work to decrease the gender gap in the whole tech arena itself. A few minor revisions could lead this bill to having a highly positive impact on American students, given that funding is granted for such courses to be implemented. Codesters is used by certain K-12 school systems, so this could be a great starting point for this type of requirement integration.

Collegian Columnist Chad Earnest can be reached at letters@collegian.com, or on Twitter @churnest.