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Should Computer Coding Count As a Foreign Language?

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Spanish. French. German. Computer coding. Are they the same?

This question is at the center of a debate in Florida, where legislators are currently considering a bill that would require high schools to offer computer coding as a foreign-language credit.

The bill is sponsored by former Yahoo executive state Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, who sees coding as its own unique language. But some argue the skill doesn’t offer the value of spoken-language training and might be a better fit for the STEM disciplines.

Last December, Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he “absolutely” disagrees with the idea that computer coding is an equal substitute for a foreign language. (So do the editorial staffs of the Tampa Bay TimesTallahassee DemocratOrlando Sentinel and The Palm Beach Post.)

Research out of the University of Florida suggests most Floridians believe Spanish instruction should be required in the state’s schools. Miami-Dade County, where more than 66 percent of residents are Hispanic or Latino, is home to the largest school district in Florida and the sixth largest in the U.S. Recently, the district pledged to improve its Spanish-language instruction with better teacher training and a new curriculum.

“Based on both educational, intellectual development, and emotional development — as well as long-term economic development in an increasingly bilingual and biliterate community — computer coding is not a trade-off,” Carvalho told the Miami Herald.

Bills similar to Ring’s have passed or been introduced in other states, with proponents claiming the foreign-language credit approach will benefit students who will need to compete in the modern day workforce.

“By 2020, companies across the U.S. will have 1.4 million job openings requiring computer-science expertise and just 400,000 college graduates to fill them,” John Lauerman writes for Bloomberg Business.

But, as a source tells Lauerman, monolingual Americans will need to up their game, too. Mari Corugedo, who teaches elementary-aged English-language learners in the Miami-Dade district, knows this firsthand.

“In our case, in Miami-Dade, many of the jobs do require them to have the language of Spanish in order to communicate and do business here,” she said in a phone interview Monday. While teaching her students English, she also works with them to maintain proficiency in their first language so that by the time they graduate from high school, they are confident in both. Corugedo is also a district director for League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Florida, which opposes the bill.

In a widely cited post related to this issue, author Amy Hirotaka writes:

“Although we use the term ‘programming language’ to refer to C++, Java, Python, and so on, these aren’t natural languages. Spanish has a vocabulary of 10,000 words, with a consistent grammatical and sentence structure. In contrast, a typical computing language has a vocabulary of about 100 words, and the real work is learning how to put these words together to build a complex program.”

Another concern Floridians have: Who’s going to teach these courses if the bill passes?

Gloria Artecona-Pelaez, director of the Office of Teacher Preparation and Accreditation at the University of Miami, said the state is already facing a teacher shortage. So if every high school in the state is required to hire a teacher who can code, that could be a challenge — one that also affects teacher-prep programs at the higher education level.

There’s also the question of whether students who take coding as their foreign language in high school will be accepted into colleges and universities that are looking for credits earned in traditional foreign-language courses.

The Florida bill addresses this, stating that colleges and universities within the state system must accept computer coding as a foreign language. However, “each student and his or her parent must sign a statement acknowledging and accepting that taking a computer coding course as a foreign language may not meet out-of-state college and university foreign language requirements.”

The Florida Senate will reconvene Tuesday, with the bill on its special order calendar. If enacted, the bill would take effect on July 1 and would require schools to start offering computer coding courses by the 2018-19 school year.