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Someone Please Tell Ohio Policymakers: Coding ≠ Human Language

Updated: Jul 18, 2019

  • Ohio Budget Bill Meddles with World Language High School Grad. Requirement

  • Allows Substitution of World Language credit with Computer Coding

  • Equates Spanish (200,000+ words) with JAVA (57 keywords) and other programming languages.

Columbus, Ohio -- No matter how many letters to the editor we write, some state legislators just don’t seem to get it: computer science, coding, and programming are NOT the same as a human language. Even the, an advocacy organization devoted to spreading access to computer programming courses, bluntly states, “Computer Science is Not a Foreign Language.

Of course they aren’t same, a rational person would say. One skill is communication between computers, the other skill is communication between humans. What’s the big deal? Why does it matter?

In policy-making definitions mean a great deal, especially when legislators decide to meddle with what is defined as a “language.”

Hidden away deep on page 793 of Ohio’s fiscal year 2020-2021 budget bill is this:

“If a school…requires a foreign language as an additional graduation requirement…a student may apply one unit of…computer coding to satisfy one unit of foreign language.”

If passed as amended, H.R.166 would severely harm world language programs throughout the state and take away opportunities for students to take a world language. Data shows that when world languages was removed as a “core subject” in Florida, for example, programs were impacted in a negative way, creating unfair learning opportunities for students (i.e. only one language choice, +50 students in a class, forced to take language class online in less than optimal learning situation, fewer opportunities to study longer sequence of language to higher proficiency levels and take advantage of academic opportunities such as credits earned from IB, AP exams). And with the raise of the Seal of Biliteracy recognition program as an additional achievement for graduates, languages are becoming a differentiator in entrance to competitive state universities and jobs from law to customer service.

And let’s consider college admissions. First, Ohio legislation cannot just simply mandate what the state university system accepts for credit. What about students who want to go to college outside of Ohio? This would create a disadvantage for Ohio students when applying to colleges outside of the state where two years of world languages credits are required for entrance. The large majority of colleges and universities require at least 2 years of study of another language because of its many cognitive benefits as well as the fact that students develop problem-solving abilities that lead to higher academic achievement and social adaptability. They also know that being bilingual is a resume differentiator that opens the door to better job opportunities after graduation.

There is a BIG difference between the skills learned coding vs speaking.

Besides putting foreign languages, an already underfunded discipline, at risk of losing the support of schools, districts, and states, the movement to recognize computer coding as a substitute or alternative to a foreign language has another damaging consequence: it allows two completely unrelated disciplines to satisfy the same credit for graduation. This is dangerous, as it 1) sets a precedent for the same to happen between other unrelated disciplines and, in doing so, 2) opens debate over which subjects are more important than others. In addition, implementing this policy would pose a host of logistical problems in areas such as the allocation of funds to foreign language departments for curriculum and professional development and the acceptance of students’ foreign language credits at out-of-state universities.

And at the federal level, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) identifies world languages as part of a child’s “well-rounded education” and calls for support to build world languages programs and opportunities. Ohio needs world languages in order to compete successfully for ESSA funding and provide our students with access to quality language learning.

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) released a comprehensive policy statement in 2017 supporting both coding and languages for a strong 21st century workforce:

  • The study of computer coding does not allow students to gain the intercultural skills, insight, and perspectives to know how, when, and why to express what to whom. In other words, computer coding does not meet the standards outlined in the World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages (National Standards Collaborative Board, 2015).  Computer coding cannot be used by people to interact and negotiate meaning with other people.

  • Computer coding cannot be used to investigate, explain, and reflect on the relationship between the products, practices, and perspectives of a particular culture through the language.  Languages provide an historical connection to society and culture and have been around for centuries, gathering the elements of culture, preserving stories, and being used for human communication.

  • In comparison to most world languages with about 10,000 vocabulary words and grammatical structures, computer coding does not utilize large numbers of words, nor does it use them in the same ways.  A “typical computing language has a vocabulary of about 100 words, and the real work is learning how to put these words together.” (Hirotaka, 2014) Merriam-Webster provides the following “simple” definition of language: the system of words or signs that people use to express thoughts and feelings to each other. 

  • Computer coding does not express thoughts or feelings.Colleges and universities vary in their policies for accepting computer coding as fulfilling students’ foreign language entry requirements.

  • Computer coding is part of the larger field of computer science, which is a critical 21st century subject and deserves its own graduation requirement.  Computer science is much more related to mathematics and science than to languages.

As education policy advocates, JNCL-NCLIS and it’s organizational members applaud that some state legislators are finally recognizing that our kids need more and better preparation to participate in a global society, a global economy. Which includes being able to design a website or become proficient in another language. But if your main policy strategy revolves around replacing one 21st century skill for another by changing definition, then you’re not thinking hard enough.

Already, state legislators in Florida, Maryland, Virginia, Maine, and a handful of other states have seen the light. We hope Ohioans find a better, more equitable, and sustainable solution to improving education for our students.

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