Programming Language, Natural Language: To-may-toe, To-mah-toe?

My Visual Basic.NET professor threw out a link to the article, “States could count computer programming as foreign language skill” (from the Washington Post) and asked “What do you think about this idea?”.

I think it sucks. What I put out to the class follows.

Wow. I cannot believe how much our legislators like to rewrite reality. The idea of counting computer programming for foreign language study is a huge change in objectives. It’s like saying taking Trig counts as a foreign language.

Granted: becoming fluent in both trigonometry and Spanish involve learning a different head space, a different way of thinking, from English language conversations. However, can anyone honestly say that the majority of students who take trig have a better appreciation for the variety of human interactions in the world, the depth of our cultural histories, and a better ability to communicate, both in and outside of the culture they grew up in?

Programming languages are a lot more like trigonometry than they are like natural human languages. The tone of my voice cannot change the fundamental meaning of tangent, and sine squared plus cosine squared will always equal one, no matter how many ways I rewrite or reframe that identity. The color or size of my font makes no difference to the instructions I write, and I can write my condition statements in any way that achieves my desired outcome.

Yet, in Chinese for example, the pitch of your voice can drastically change the meaning of the word you just spoke. And the idioms of English (phrases like “You’re pulling my leg!”) are pretty senseless when literally translated to other languages, just as many of their idioms “fly right over our heads”.

I do not see this shift benefiting our children, because when all is said and done, you can be the smartest techie the world has yet seen, but if you cannot communicate what you know with the people you work with, you are more liability than asset.

EDIT: To clarify, I do believe that bringing more computer courses into the K-12 curriculum is a good thing, and beneficial, but *not* as a way to supplant foreign language studies – technical skills are only one part of a successful person.


So, that’s what I said then. I noticed that there was a “generation” gap in the response, with the group over 30 mostly face palming at the idea, and the group under 30 cheering the change. Do we need more logical thinking skills in the class room? HELL YES! Do we need to get rid of foreign language study? HELL NO!

But that’s pretty much what counting a programming language as a natural human language does. Another way to look at it: Robbing Peter to pay Paul. We, as in the United States of America, as a nation, need to ensure our kids are computer literate because, reality check, computers are everywhere! Most of those computers can be treated like “magic”, in much the same way we treat electricity, but a lot of them can’t be kept at that much of a remove – like the one you’re reading this on.

Does that mean that every student should learn how to program? That was another discussion topic, which I’ll address in the next post. 🙂