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States Could Allow Students to Learn Coding Instead of Foreign Languages

First posted on Education Week's Curriculum Matters blog

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Michigan is the latest state to consider allowing students to replace required foreign language classes with computer coding courses.

The state's House of Representatives voted earlier this week to approve a bill that would allow students to take three credits of computer science, arts, or career tech training instead of a foreign language in order to graduate. 

Proponents argued the bill, which has not yet passed the state's Senate, would give students more flexibility in choosing their courses. 

This isn't the first time a state has argued that computer code is an appropriate stand-in for foreign language in high school. Texas passed a law in 2013 that allowed some students to use computer coding to meet their foreign language requirement, and Kentucky and New Mexico considered similar bills around that time.

In Montana, a bill currently on the table would put informatics, or coding, courses in every high school and allow them to count for a foreign language requirement.

In Florida, the legislature considered a bill earlier this year that would have required state colleges to accept coding credits in place of foreign language credits for incoming freshmen. That bill had the support of tech companies and was supported by Florida Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Democrat and former Yahoo employee, who said coding would be a great equalizer for the state's students. But civil rights groups, including the Spanish American League Against Discrimination, decried the bill, saying it would deprive students of critical language skills. The bill made it through the state's senate but died before becoming law

The White House has been supportive of schools and states that want to expand the role of computer science in schools, proposing $4 billion to states for computer science programming as part of a "Computer Science For All Initiative" launched early this year. 

But advocates for both computer science and foreign language education have raised red flags about conflating computer language and human language.

"A world language course helps you connect with people around the world that you're able to understand because you speak the language and understand the culture," said Marty Abbot, the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language, in an interview. "That's a completely different end result than you find with computer coding." 

"We don't see the connection at all," she said. "We're concerned about this trend of equating computer coding with learning a world language."

Abbot said that just about 17 states require students take a foreign language to graduate (other states require it for certain types of diplomas, or have state universities that require two years of language for admission), so the ACTFL is wary of any efforts to water down those requirements. Some 20 states don't even collect data about how many students take world language courses.

Proponents of computer science have also argued against the argument that coding is equivalent to a world language: In 2014, Amy Hirotaka, the state policy and advocacy manager for Code.org, wrote a blog post arguing that computer science is more than just learning to code, and that coding is more related to math and science than to world languages. A number of states allow computer science courses to count for math or science credit. 

Computer science courses are becoming more prevalent, but the debate over just what they should be teaching has also grown. Should the focus be on theory or practice? Mimicking computer scientists' job or introducing students to the basics? A recent report argues that computer science should be taught as a core science, not just as a set of codes and activities. As more states and legislators get interested in coding, it's likely we've not seen the last of the arguments that computer code is a language. 

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