Teaching Kids To Code Is The New Teaching Kids Spanish

Coding is a language, say proponents.
Pool via Getty Images

Florida high school student Brooke Stewart would gladly swap two required foreign language classes to become fluent in JavaScript or Python, the coding languages she uses to design computer games.

Lawmakers in her state have sparked national debate by considering whether to provide that option. A measure championed by a former Yahoo executive, who is now a Florida legislator, would allow students to substitute traditional foreign language studies for immersion in coding, the lingua franca of the technology era.

Enthusiasm for teaching coding to American students is widespread, with President Barack Obama in his latest weekly radio address calling for computer science to join the "three R's" - reading, writing and arithmetic. But many share concerns about doing so at the expense of global languages, arguing the computer algorithms do not equate to conversations.

Stewart, a 16-year-old high school sophomore in Tampa, said rethinking the definition of a language makes sense.

"You can translate languages across the Internet through coding, but you can't do that without coding," she said.

Officials in Kentucky, Georgia, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington also have floated the notion of substituting foreign language studies with computer coding credits in recent years.

So far, however, few have adopted such measures.

Texas allows such a swap under a policy adopted in 2014 that is approved only through the current school year. State education officials have not tracked how widely it has been used.

Oklahoma has permitted similar flexibility for more than a decade, but only because rural schools have struggled to hire instructors to teach global languages, said state officials.

"We were not trying to equate the two at all," said Desa Dawson, director of world languages for the Oklahoma state education department.

Many states are recognizing coding credits within the subject areas of math and science. CODE.org, a leader in the push for computer science education, favors that approach.

"Spanish is used to communicate to one another," said Cameron Wilson, vice president of government affairs at CODE.org, which has not taken a position on the Florida bill. "A computer language is really only used to communicate to a computer on how to execute codes on a machine."

Comparing them represents a "fundamental misunderstanding," he said.

CODE.org says 28 states and the District of Columbia allow computer science to be applied toward graduation requirements, mostly in math and science.

The sponsor of the Florida measure, which on Wednesday passed its third committee vote in the state Senate, defends his approach.

Democratic state Senator Jeremy Ring said his bill aims to elevate computer science in Florida, where students mostly take the subject as an elective. Foreign languages are not required to earn a basic state diploma, but university-bound students need two credits.

"Coding is a language," said Ring, who got the idea from his 14-year-old son. "It is a global language, more global than French or German or Spanish, or for that matter even English."

It is too early to known whether his bill will pass as it now proceeds to the full Senate. The Florida House is debating an alternative approach that would have a panel study the issue.

"Coding is very sexy and very now," said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, which does not have a position.

He cautions against overreaching.

"Coding is arguably what welding was 100 years ago," he said. "Let's not get carried away."

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Alistair Bell)

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