Foreign language requirements in public schools are too restrictive. House Bill 5534, currently in the Michigan legislature, would do away with them entirely, shifting education focuses to more vocational opportunities. This legislation is misguided for a number of reasons. Learning a foreign language has been shown to have cognitive advantages, and it exposes students to cultures and basic college prerequisites. Not only should foreign language requirements remain in Michigan, but they should be expanded to include programming languages.
Any definition of “language” is likely to include points on translating signifiers into signs into symbols (letters and words) that can be arranged and rearranged by certain rules (syntax and grammar) to communicate a message. Languages are tools of communication. Were they not adequate mediums of expression, languages would have begun and ended in the grunts of our ancestors, never having risen to their place among the chief accomplishments of the human race. So engrained in our minds are the effects of language that we have a hard time picturing our lives without them — from speaking to writing, thinking to doing, languages pervade nearly every aspect of everything we do.
This is entirely true of programming languages as well.
And yet there is reticence to expanding foreign language requirements to include computer languages. Some contend that foreign language requirements should only extend to human languages spoken predominantly in other countries. There are three main arguments to this point: one, learning a language that’s spoken by a large portion of the population opens up more possibilities; two, there’s a deeper and more meaningful “cultural” significance conferred by spoken human languages; and three, programming languages are constructed and are therefore more “artificial” than other languages.
Let’s consider these points in reverse order. All human language is human-made and arbitrary distinctions made in favor of a preferred language smack of warrantless elitism. Furthermore, while history does bestow a certain cultural inertia to many traditional languages, to automatically dismiss the modes of thinking, types of expression and social aspects of programming misses a significant reason why we should try to learn second languages. And finally, there are millions of programmers across the world whose words have global effects; after all, the Internet is nothing short of the collected works of countless coding authors. Programming languages matter.
Even the U.S. government agrees. In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama reiterated a point that his administration has stressed time and again: The country is in dire need of computer scientists, technicians and engineers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that there will be more than two-million additional jobs requiring computer specializations by 2020. How will these demands be met with such a dearth in supply? We need people who can speak these languages. Without being able to communicate with professionals in a field — without understanding how computers, servers and just about every electronic device on the planet uses language to operate — there’s quite literally little to be said on the matter. We simply cannot solve our problems if we don’t know how to convey them.
Beyond the real-world applicability of learning a programming language as a second language, there are pedagogical benefits. Programming languages have fairly low barriers to entry in that one’s thoughts can be translated quite easily from one’s primary language. This easy translation is also coupled with instantaneous feedback (whether one’s words, logic and syntax are correct will be checked almost immediately), removing the temporal lag in uncertainty and reducing the problem of working bad habits into one’s vocabulary. Moreover, creativity can flourish almost as quickly. Though you may be able to talk about your trip to the library and how nice the tables at the restaurant were after a semester of Spanish, after a semester of nearly any programming language a person is equipt to do everything from finding the first million prime numbers to creating a personal version of Tetris. The fact that computer languages are also uniquely positioned to take advantage of the recent trends in education toward online learning and massively distributed courses is one that shouldn’t escape educators and legislators alike.
Programming languages are languages. Their importance is obvious and should be translated to our nation’s students. As our globe becomes increasingly interconnected, we need ways of transcending borders. The students of today must be able to greet this reality in as many ways as they can.
Barry Belmont is an Engineering graduate student.