Coding or French? The Language Debate.

Election day has me thinking. This session the Oregon State Legislature introduced a bill that would allow coding to be considered a foreign language. Essentially, coding could be taken in lieu of the traditional languages offered such as Spanish or French in public schools.

As someone who spends ample time both coding and speaking foreign languages, this bill caught my eye–to say the least. I entered the coding world with the notion that learning to code would parallel with learning Nepali, or French, or any other language; challenging, new, exciting, and well? Foreign. However, there are some stark differences.

First off, cross cultural connection is not facilitated while learning to code. Learning a foregin language allows you to communicate with people from across the world, with a totally different world view. Yeah, I know–the same point might be argued for coding; learning to communicate in a totally different way that only a certain population understands? Learning to code does that! Yet there is something lacking. Something deeper and more intimate.

I will tangentially argue this point with a personal anecdote. I was once in India, after having spent 5 months living with a host family in Nepal and learning Nepali (the main language spoken there). I met a Nepali worker who cooked at the hostel where I was residing. I recognized that he was Nepali and greeted him with the traditional Namaste and how are you, in Nepali. His eyes filled with tears and he grabbed my hands and thanked me for taking the time to understand his culture. I was touched, and humbled, and felt I had an inkling of an understanding of this total stranger. We never would have spoken otherwise. We could have been standing face to face yet worlds apart due to a language barrier between us. However, we were able to communicate, and understand one another.

My second argument is that I do not believe that coding and foreign languages use the same part of our brains. Whether this matters or not isn’t up to me. My evidence is not scientific (yet), but it is first-hand. Having learned 3 foreign languages, and spent the last 8 months learning to code–I can say with certainty that these experiences have both been extremely valuable in brain development. Yet, not the same. Coding pursues a more linear and logical part of the brain, whereas language calls upon memorization, spoken word, and intent listening.

Language is a strange and powerful thing. I am fairly certain that if we didn’t decide to call them programming LANGUAGES in the first place, this bill would never exist. What if we called them programming structures. Or recipes? Maybe coding would be the modern day Home-Ec.

Finally, its necessary to point out that coding is a vocation. Its a practical and useful skill, and students, especially girls, should absolutely be learning to code. However, just because it should be included in public school curriculum does not make it a replacement for foreign languages.

At the end of the day, the question that arises is about the end goal of education. Is it job placement? Is it a multicultural worldview? Or is it simply a well-rounded education?