The “learn to code” movement may be about to run afoul of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Few (least of all nerdy me) will argue that learning a computer language as a kid doesn’t have merit. Grasping some of the basics of computer science by picking up a programming language is a great way to determine how to break big hairy problems into manageable component parts, experiment with cause and effect, and discover the importance of attention to detail. (Yes, children, capitalization matters, even beyond that English assignment.)

Besides, becoming a silicon whisperer can open new windows onto math and science, not to mention careers.

Now THAT's a non-human language
Now THAT’s a non-human language

Yet even if computer languages are foreign to us carbon-based life forms, they are not equivalent to human languages. And you wouldn’t necessarily know that based on some legislative proposals making the rounds.

  • In New Mexico, a state senator is pushing to have computer programming, such as in JavaScript or HTML, count toward the “language other than English” graduation requirement.
  • Kentucky is pondering similar legislation for the required two credits of foreign language in the name of what the bill’s sponsor calls “flexibility,” and it cleared the state’s Senate Education Committee late in January.
  • In the U.S. House of Representatives, a measure promoting school-age programming has been introduced with the admittedly delightful hexadecimal title of the “416d65726963612043616e20436f646520 Act of 2013.” Its author, Representative Tony Cardenas of California, says it would designate computer languages as “critical foreign languages.”

This is both so geekily pro-tech, and so very wrong.

1963 edition, still useful
1963 edition, still useful

True, computer programming is learning a “foreign language” in the sense that you are trying to map how you give instructions in your native tongue to how a digital recipient recognizes what you’re trying to say in its highly structured vocabulary and syntax. That’s great for honing logical thinking, accomplishing tasks and maybe even making a few bucks (or more) by creating apps or pursuing a job.

But vocabulary and syntax are pretty much where the similarities between computer and human languages end. It’s the difference between communicating with something versus someone.

Human languages are not just for describing actions of other meat puppets, but also are an entry point for grokking different ways of describing physical objects, emotions and concepts that may have a cultural or historical basis different from the language learner’s, providing a new perspective – and avenues for further education.

I’ll never forget being fascinated by German’s endless compound nouns, or my inability to only approximate a translation of idioms in Spanish or German that make perfect sense to native speakers. (Need proof of how hard this is? Read any 1980’s era videocassette recorder manual. Or just use Google Translate today.)

1971 edition, not so useful
1971 edition, not so useful

And let’s face it, for all nerd culture has in appeal, I doubt it’s as rich or ancient as that of the Russian, Chinese or Greek. Klingon, with its own language, may be the exception – but that’s non-human.

Long term, I’d argue that learning another human language can be as beneficial financially as any specific computer language. Aside from encouraging greater mental flexibility and creative thinking skills, being bilingual is in demand by employers as companies adopt an international posture and as more non-native English speakers are part of the U.S.’ own demographic shifts.

Finally, there’s the matter of longevity. The German and Spanish I learned as a child are still contemporary and, with a little renewed exposure, useful in the form in which I learned them. I cannot say the same about the FORTRAN IV I studied in junior high school. Though I could, with a little prompting, probably still use Hollerith statements to create a mean USS Enterprise out of individual asterisks.

I doubt many of the well-intentioned code advocates like anticipated or even wanted this, especially with CodeDay coming up on February 15. And Washington, along with a couple of handfuls of other states, has taken a more, well, logical path by allowing computer science courses to count toward science or math graduation requirements, understanding computer programming is more STEM than speech.

A better approach? Encourage both. Picking up a programming language might spur a student to later take on another human language, or vice versa. Use each as a gateway to the other: Computer languages to teach meaningful abstraction, and human languages to teach deep communication.

In a dystopian society, the risk is that we learn how to communicate with machines – and forget how to communicate with each other. Unless you’re just hedging your bets. Right, SkyNET?

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  • Adam Gering

    As someone who took 4 years of foreign language in high school, 30 credits of two languages in college, then learned a 3rd foreign language living in a foreign country for over a decade; and the father of 3 bilingual children; I’ll say this:

    No, learn to code.

    Learning a foreign language fluently is best done in an immersive environment in a foreign country. 4 years of high-school level foreign language (which for the very best students might equal 1 year of college level foreign language) is not going to make anyone fluent in the language.

    Learning to code, has immediate applicable uses; in college, in the workforce, even for non-programming jobs. 1 year of coding will give one substantial skills. 4 years of programming would be a competitive advantage graduating from high school and a required skill going into college.

    The foreign language will be forgotten.

    Sure, learning both is ideal. But there are a limited number of teachers, a limited number of elective credits, a limit number of subject hours per semester; 4 years of coding is going to add massive more value than 4 years of foreign language.

    “I’d argue that learning another human language can be as beneficial financially as any specific computer language.”

    Is this a feel good opinion with no facts to back it up? Look at the job market for bilingual speakers versus jobs that require programming skills; and their estimated salaries.

    The job market is flooded with native bilingual speakers (those that learned two languages as young children); who needed no particular skill to become bilingual other than immersion in the languages.

    There are very few children who have been immersed in programming at a young age. Geekwire tends to write articles about them, when they publish their programs to the world, or raise money from venture capitalists.

    • FrankCatalano

      While you make a strong case, the underlying assumption seems to be that the objective of studying either coding or world languages is the highest possible salary overall, not a higher relative salary for a chosen career a learner actually wants to do (which may, or may not, be in the STEM fields).

      One estimate, cited in US News last month, was that, “those entering the workforce in 2014 with second language fluency can expect an additional 10 to 15 percent pay increase.”

      This is in addition to studied and documented improvements in multitasking, memory, observation skills and rational decision-making. Those job and life skill benefits can remain long after the practical use of the language may have been “forgotten.” I cite one study in my column; others are cited here (

      So if coding has benefits that go beyond learning a specific programming language, something I readily acknowledge up front, so does studying world languages.

      • Mark Carter

        “those entering the workforce in 2014 with second language fluency can expect an additional 10 to 15 percent pay increase.”

        That’s good, but what percentage of people who study a second language get to second language fluency?

        Also, what is the percentage pay increase for people studying a programming language vs. those that don’t (regardless of what profession they go into)?

        • FrankCatalano

          I’ll be fascinated to hear the results of the studies you find that answer those questions.

    • Guest

      UN jobs, seem to pay as much if not better than the Seattle tech scene. Being bilingual really helps get a job with the UN. Being a programmer, few and far between needed with the UN. Entry level adjusted pay is $77k on the low end for a UN job.

  • Guest

    Or you can learn to speak and write a foreign language or 5 and learn to code. Learning to code is similar to learning to speak and write a foreign language if it’s based on latin. People who learn to write Java can find it easier to jump into C# than somebody who tries to jump from JavaScript to C#. Somebody who learns Latin can typically learn other latin based languages with ease (Spanish, French, etc…).

    In the real world of getting a job, not all jobs will put higher priority on a programming language than the ability to speak and write another language. If you are an ambassador to China from the USA and you are not able to speak at least one dialect of Chinese, you are useless.

  • Bill Schrier

    Theoretically I’ll agree with your argument, as I also learned COBOL and FORTRAN when I was younger and they are useless now. I also learned German in high school and college and will say the most important lessons were not in learning the language, but in learning a different culture.
    However, I disagree – I think learning a foreign language for the “language” (as opposed to the culture) will be obsolete for most people soon. Microsoft research has already demonstrated near-real-time translation of the spoken word from English to Cantonese, and the automated written and spoken language translation programs will only get better. Couple that with augmented reality (e.g. a future version of Google Glass translating billboards and books as you read them), and the nail is in that coffin.
    Learning the culture of other places, perhaps by learning some of the language is, however, invaluable to future world peace and harmony.
    So I agree with you – this movement to ditch foreign language requirements for coding requirements in school should, itself, be ditched.

    • FrankCatalano

      So Bill, let me go out on a limb and speculate on one of your points (and I’m generally on board with your thinking, especially for routine doc translating and tourists).

      Say you’re in a high-level business meeting. You are negotiating with two people who don’t natively speak your language. One is constantly checking with a smartphone or Google Glass for translation, and perhaps communicates with you in your language with a synthesized voice, yet does a decent job. The other has learned your language, and converses with you naturally with appropriate wording, tone and cadence. Who are you likely to think understands your communication better and are likely to trust more?

      At least for the next decade or two, I suspect this element of psychology will still be a factor in some communication that goes beyond translation.

  • Mom

    Our kids’ school do a lot of logic puzzles (perplexors) and they have other names too. I am a CS grad myself. For me the best combo is a daily dose of logic puzzles and foreign human language

    • FrankCatalano

      I think my gateway drug to programming was a series of plastic-boxed logic puzzles my mother bought me as a kid (for the life of me, I can’t recall the name, but it was popular at the time). She also insisted we speak German in the house at least one evening a week, and only German (she was born in Berlin). I enjoyed the former, was challenged by the latter, but now see the wisdom in both approaches.

  • Roy

    When moving to a new area and a new school in 9th grade, I was forced to take a computer math class because it was the only elective left with open slots. I hate math, so I wasn’t looking forward to it. To my surprise we learned a computer programming language called BASIC. I discovered that I loved computer programming. The class changed my life, and I went on to become a professional programmer. After nearly 20 years in the field, it has been one of the best decisions I ever made.
    In high school and college I was more or less forced to a take years of a foreign language because “it’s good for you.”, but in hindsight most of it was a waste of time. Yes, it is good for people to gain a wider perspective of life and language outside the US and English, and so some foreign language and culture education is good, but in my opinion, way too much time is spent on it. It would be much better for society as a whole to have students learn and experience a larger variety of subjects than to spend much time specializing on one thing.
    There is a wide perception that computer science is all about math and geek-speak, and colleges reinforce this with needless math requirements, turning off thousands of potential computer majors. The fact of the matter is that the computer field has moved way past calculating rocket trajectories, and is now widely used to advance everything from medical research to entertainment.
    We expect high school students to graduate and to have career goals, but generally they are exposed to very little if any real computer science. It’s no wonder we have a shortage of computer science majors.

  • Vroo (Bruce Leban)

    I think most people who know how to code recognize that it’s not comparable to learning a foreign language. But there is one key way in which it is comparable.

    Learning your first computer language is more about learning how to think like a coder than the fine details of that language. In the same way, learning a foreign language unlocks your brain in certain ways. The same can be said of learning to play a musical instrument or playing a sport.

    I’m all for kids learning all of these things. But thinking that any of them can substitute for the others is naïve and misguided.

    • FrankCatalano

      Bruce, I agree on that commonality between learning computer and world languages: each provides a structured method to examine and deconstruct what we may take for granted, and to then “make” something intangible with those rules and structure. It’s a way of thinking that has a life skill benefit far beyond the generated code or communication.

  • Guest

    I doubt many of the politicians creating legislation that would classify computer languages as foreign languages are fluent in either.

  • Greg Dove

    One world, one language. Only way for peace on earth

    • FrankCatalano

      And one word: Esperanto. That didn’t quite work out as planned.

  • Kevin Pierce

    FORTRAN 77 all the way, baby! (Former T.A.)

  • Mom Loves Mastermind

    In Middle School and High School, kids often choose between totally different things within the same “category” – so I think Frank’s general point is “what will we lose if we learn how to code?” Whether it’s a replacement for a language, for a math class, religion, music, whatever – the real question is “what gives”? Fundamentally, you can learn logic and programming-thinking in a few ways. How about MASTERMIND? World’s best toy for learning how to debug. :)

  • Kevin Lisota

    I took both foreign language and computer classes, though admittedly the computer side of things is more self-taught than formal education.

    Steering students away from foreign language in favor of programming is a mistake. Both have their place in a well-rounded education.

    I took 5 years of Spanish in high-school/college, and at one point in my life my Spanish was passable, but I never used it and much of it is forgotten. I then switched to Japanese and studied abroad in Japan during college. My Japanese ended up better than my Spanish, and I continued to use it in a work capacity for various software companies. I still use it to converse with my friends on the other side of the Pacific.

    In my experience, computer skills have more direct and immediate economic benefit, and I would guess that would continue to be the case for some time. Though I’ve benefited from both financially in my own career.

    My foreign language education and subsequent immersion in another culture changed me fundamentally as a person and has had a far larger impact on my life than any sort of computer study. I think differently, my global outlook & politics changed and it significantly altered even basic things like what I eat day-to-day and my perceptions of other people’s manners and behaviors. Frank, you are right, there are some cultural concepts that have no direct translation, yet make total sense when you are immersed in another language.

    I could argue that 4-yrs of high school language study doesn’t accomplish a whole lot and is quickly forgotten. It needs to be a stepping stone to studying abroad, immersed in another culture, but does that stepping stone disappear if no one is ever exposed to foreign languages?

    While critical that we expand our computer science education, it shouldn’t be at the expense of foreign language education.

    • FrankCatalano

      Kevin, good observations, and I’m in total agreement on the relative value of immersion vs. book study of a world language. My Spanish was taken several years in a classroom. My German was learned ages 4-5 in Berlin living with my mother and grandparents, including “real” Kindergarten, with a refresher in high school. To this day, I recall and can use more of the German than the Spanish. But both changed my perspectives and thinking.

  • gseattle

    Which? I agree with both, if you can.

    “The more programming languages you know, the more they all start to look the same.” i.e chin up, it gets easier as you go, and feels good to have a skill with such power, I’m writing some automatic stock market trading code for myself in Python for example. Picked up coding by myself, liked it. Did not like the foreign language in school thing, couldn’t picture putting it to use. A Brazilian girl I know speaks 6 languages fluently, amazing, yet code is in wider demand.

  • John T Smith

    Eh, what is the big deal here? Speaking from experience, my elementary aged kids in a NY public school are learning neither a foreign language or to code. If I had to pick, I’d hope they learn to code. Schools should be teaching both at the elem age and having to pick one should not be an option. Not in today’s world and that of the future for these kids. We talk about STEM, globalization, etc., but none of that plays into the daily educational lives of not just my kids but of thousands, if not millions, of others. Teaching coding is getting more of a national spotlight because of the new opportunities available for doing so. We are just at the beginning stages of this and I think American kids would fare very well as coders and developers. My 4th grader has been “learning about” the Iroquois in “social studies” (now rolled right into ELA) for over 3 months straight. Nothing else in SS. It would benefit him and the district to back away from those Iroquois for a bit and shift time over to learning about coding or a foreign language.

  • Janice Holter Kittok

    When computers can express their own unique worldview, then learning computer language is the equivalent to foreign language study. Language isn’t about the vocabulary and grammar. It’s about human interaction.

  • Giuseppe

    I agree with his logic but disagree with the bias of the article. Yes, it is true that learning a computer language has more to do with logic than syntax. As I’ve ventured to learn to code I’ve spent exponentially more time learning how to think like a computer than learning the syntax. Once I figure out the logic of how to do what I want to do, the syntax is relatively easy to figure out.

    Where I take issue with the article is the lack of appreciation for why these pieces of legislation have been proposed. Courses need to be approved before they are taught and they need to fit into a curriculum. Even if the class is an elective, the case still needs to be made for its place in the classroom. Offering the course as an elective essentially deprioritizes the class, given that other requirements must be fulfilled before coding can be studied. But proposing that computer coding be given equal footing as any other human language is not about equating computer language with human language. It’s about recognizing coding as an important subject that should be included in primary, non-elective, education. It paves the way for including the subject in the overall curriculum. As students and teachers are tested on everything, teachers are increasingly discouraged from teaching anything that is not approved or required. These pieces of legislation address such an issue.

    If coding is available as a requirement-fulfilling course, students are much more likely to take it, which leads to greater need for coding teachers. It also gives permission to administrators to prioritize teaching coding, which allows them to open resources to the subject and promote it. All of this reduces the friction for teaching coding. Perhaps coding should count as a science or math course. Logic, hypothesis testing, cause and effect, and similar lessons are the cornerstones of STEM education. Surely they can be taught via coding. To be fair, you allow for this argument, though only with one sentence towards the end of his article. Out of a 751 word article, a single 39 word sentence hardly represents a fair appreciation of the rationale for the legislation. Criticizing the legislation without discussing the reasons for it is unfair and intellectually dishonest. It robs the reader of a better appreciation of the conversation around the subject. If you are going to criticize the legislation, it would only be fair to first explain the pros, cons, and rationale of such legislation.

    • FrankCatalano

      And it took 416 words to get to the same point concisely made in 39 in my column (not article): If coding is to count toward a requirement, it should be for STEM, not foreign language. And I’m in favor of it counting.

      • Giuseppe

        Not accurate. You address the reasons why students should learn to code. You don’t address why educators and legislators propose this in the first place and why it needs to be proposed at all. Not because it should be taught (I think we all agree on that) but because without legislation, it will have a very hard time making its way into the curriculum at all. Your article lacks an appreciation for how subjects get added to curricula and the barriers the subject faces.

        • FrankCatalano

          In Washington and roughly nine other states, computer science courses count toward a science or math graduation requirement, per legislation.

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