Op-Ed: A different kind of language barrier

Wednesday, September 14, 2016 - 4:30pm

Over the summer, the Michigan House of Representatives approved a bill that would allow Michigan high school students to take computer science courses in lieu of foreign language courses. Michigan is not the first state to consider such legislation: Students in Florida and Texas can already elect to take a computer science course instead of a foreign language, and a handful of other states have considered adopting similar legislation.

Computer science education is one of the most burning topics in academia today as the global economy becomes more and more dependent on computer-literate workers. Some of the nation’s largest school districts already have plans in place to implement computer science programs into their curricula in an effort to equip their students with highly valuable computer skills. However, computer science curricula should not supplant traditional foreign language curricula; in fact, this interchange would ultimately come to the detriment to the students’ learning experience, as computer science and foreign language teach students two different, albeit important, skill sets.

The difference stems from the fact that computer languages are not natural languages. Unlike natural languages, no one innately picks up a computer language, nor does anyone speak it or use it to communicate with others. This is because languages like Java and CSS were not designed for this purpose; they were designed so humans can teach computers to think, instruct computers on what to do. Therefore, if someone learns to code, they learn a technical skill.

Due to its nature as a technical skill, rather than a communicative skill, it’s much easier to achieve fluency in a computer language than it is to achieve fluency in a natural language. Unlike computer languages, which are designed to be simple and precise, natural languages are chock full of ambiguity and nuance. Learners of a natural language must become familiar with things like synonyms, idioms, verb conjugations, tone and context clues — all of which are difficult to learn in a first language, let alone a second. Becoming competent in a foreign language therefore requires an immense amount of time, effort and critical thinking skills; fluency in a natural language can take years.

Part of the reason fluency in natural languages is so hard to achieve is that language requires immersion — constantly engaging in conversation. Such a task is incredibly difficult for students to do on their own. (On the other hand, it’s not uncommon to hear about people teaching themselves to code.) Of course, there are resources available to learn foreign languages on your own, such as Duolingo or Rosetta Stone. However, these courses are either costly (Rosetta Stone costs $199 for a 2-year subscription) or do not facilitate the type of interaction necessary to truly get a firm grasp on the language. Classroom environments, especially those where the foreign language is the only language spoken during class, might be the only place a student can experience the type of interaction needed to acquire a second language.

Whereas learning a computer language requires a student to learn the language’s syntax, foreign language courses encompass much more than some vocabulary words and a set of grammatical rules. Any good language course will weave in aspects of life in the countries where the language is spoken, giving students insight into cultures other than their own. Some of my best memories of the Hebrew courses I have taken were days where we cooked Israeli foods, watched Israeli films or discussed controversial topics that were pertinent to the country’s social and political climate. Such subject matter allows students to gain awareness of what matters to people in other parts of the world, breeding empathy and a better understanding of how to approach conversation with others.

Society often brushes aside interpersonal skills like communication and empathy, marking them as innate and therefore easy to acquire. But anyone who has taken a foreign language course knows how hard it is to become proficient in a second language, and these interpersonal skills make a working knowledge of a language other than your own just as, or even more, advantageous in the global economy. After all, every job requires human interaction, and as society becomes more globalized, understanding not only the language but also the sensitivities of other cultures becomes much more important in industry.

To condemn the role that computer science plays in our world today would be ignorant, as it has applications in nearly every field, if not all fields. Should students be encouraged to take a programming course at some point in their academic career? Of course. Should high schools, or even the University of Michigan, require a programming course as a graduation prerequisite? Perhaps.

But to offer or even encourage computer science courses as an alternative to foreign language courses would ultimately do a disservice to students. Technical skills can only get a student so far in their academic and professional careers. It is the interpersonal and critical thinking skills that are honed through courses like foreign language courses that will truly allow students to succeed in their professional life.

Rebecca Tarnopol is a senior opinion editor.