Fluent in Computer

Many states are considering proposals that would allow students to fill foreign language requirements with computer programming classes. But do the disciplines really confer the same advantages?
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Many states are considering proposals that would allow students to fill foreign language requirements with computer programming classes. But do the disciplines really confer the same advantages?
(Photo: hackny/Flickr)

(Photo: hackny/Flickr)

French, Spanish, Mandarin, or HTML: Which language would you rather spend approximately two years of high school learning (and then promptly forgetting upon graduation)?

A growing number of states—including Washington, Georgia, and Kentucky—are considering bills that would allow students to swap foreign language classes for computer language ones, like HTML, Java, or Python, Bloomberg Business reports. But are the skills really interchangeable? The answer may depend on why we value foreign languages in the first place.

The push for foreign language classes began in the Cold War. After the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, the federal government decided the American education system needed to better align with national defense interests, which meant more math, science, and foreign language learning. President Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act into law not even a year later, which provided funding to states with programs in modern foreign languages.

Since then, the National Council of State Supervisors for Languages—an organization that promotes foreign language education—has highlighted many of the research discoveries supporting the benefits of second language programs. We looked into some of that literature to figure out whether coding might confer the same advantages.


The report points to multiple studies that show that learning a second language can improve a student’s understanding of English, math, and social studies. Foreign language students outperform their peers on standardized tests across multiple subjects. Last year, Pacific Standard's Nate Collins wrote about how the skills bilinguals develop by switching between languages translate to math problem solving skills.

There doesn’t seem to be research linking coding skills to test scores yet, but computer programming prowess has been associated with heightened problem solving abilities and math skills since at least the 1980s. A 2008 report from the National Mathematics Advisory Panel recommended that “computer programming be considered as an effective tool, especially for elementary school students, for developing specific mathematics concepts and applications, and mathematical problem solving abilities.”


One of the best methods scientists have developed for quantifying creativity is measuring individuals’ divergent thinking abilities. (To test yours, list as many uses for a brick as you can think of over the next minute. The more uses you can come up with, the more creatively you think. At least that’s one of the best measures scientists have been able to come up with so far.) Learning a second language has been shown to enhance these abilities. And so has learning computer programming.

But the benefits of second language learning for creativity extend beyond simple communication to the cultural lessons that accompany its study, a 2008 article found. Learning about other countries by spending time in foreign cultures not as a tourist, but as a participant, appears to foster creativity.


Students who experience other cultures through a foreign language have an enhanced sense of global community and more positive associations with cultural information, the National Council of State Supervisors for Languages report states. And participants in a roundtable discussion hosted by the Guardian, the British Academy, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences agreed that knowledge of a foreign language increased empathy and understanding of other countries. Students who learn foreign languages are in fact more tolerant of other cultures. Not surprisingly, there is a dearth of research on the relationship between coding skills and cultural competency, but it’s probably safe to assume the former has very little impact on the latter.


There are plenty of job opportunities for those who speak foreign languages. Governmental agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency are almost always recruiting speakers fluent in Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Russian, and a long list of other languages. Corporations in the United States with business interests abroad also weigh language skills heavily in their hiring decisions. The vast majority of respondents to a 2004 survey of 2,500 graduates of the American Graduate School of International Management agreed that foreign language skills and cultural knowledge gave them a competitive advantage over their peers in the job market.

The number of computer programming jobs is increasing at two times the national average, according to Code.org, a non-profit dedicated to promoting tech education. Job growth in the computer sciences is outpacing the number of computer science degrees awarded each year. By the year 2020, there could be upwards of 1.4 million computer science jobs for just 400,000 computer science graduates in the U.S. The high demand makes computer science jobs some of the best paying gigs.


In the final tally, though, coding doesn’t quite live up to foreign languages. Decades of research have teased out the cognitive benefits of second language learning, but data on the cognitive effects of coding are scarce. “It's somewhat hard to tell, because almost any mentally challenging activity that's engaged in over a reasonable period of time seems to have cognitive benefits,” says Virginia Valian, a professor of psychology at Hunter College who studies multilingualism. “Learning to program may indeed be one such cognitively challenging activity.”

If schools are looking to boost problem solving skills, creativity, and job prospects for their students, learning computer languages may be as effective as foreign language classes. But in the increasingly multicultural society we inhabit, foreign language classes are still the best way to promote cultural awareness and tolerance among students—no other disciplines can compete.

This makes it all the more troubling that today, even as the interdependence between the U.S. and faraway nations continues to increase, enthusiasm for foreign language learning is declining.