"Zombie Bill" to Replace World Languages with Computer Coding Resurrected in Michigan
Updated: Nov 1, 2019
Advocates say a misguided state measure supplanting human languages for computer ones is back.
On September 17th, the Michigan House of Representatives was forced to consider a new, peculiar definition of what a “language” is. Greg VanWoerkem (R-MI-91) is the sponsor of Michigan House Bill 4974, which redefines a language to include computer coding for high school students fulfilling the state's language requirement.
The new bill amends an existing 1976 code to include “computer coding” under the definition of “language other than English," thus allowing a class in a computer language such as Python, C++, or Java to fulfill
the state's high school foreign language requirement.
“The only people who would suggest that computer science is akin to learning a foreign language have never coded before.”
VanWoerkem’s bill is strongly at odds with the perspective of both the language education community as well as computer science experts, who have stated in no uncertain terms that coding is much more related to math and science than to languages.
"The only people who would suggest that computer science is akin to learning a foreign language have never coded before,” argues Hadi Partovi, CEO of Code.org.
Srini Mandyam, CTO of Tynker, stresses, “I don’t believe [coding] is the same or even really comparable to learning a foreign language.”
Even some politicians have weighted in suggesting that forcing students to choose between two equally important 21st century skills is a false choice: "We need computer skills and foreign language skills. Both are critical to our modern world,” said Virginia House of Delegate member Mark Levine.
"[The coding debate] is an empty talking point for politicians to claim they support STEM education."
Trey Calvin, Managing Director of JNCL-NCLIS, asserted in a statement that the Michigan debate over the definition of a language is “an empty talking point for politicians to claim they support STEM education."
"Not only will this policy undercut the newly-minted Michigan Seal of Biliteracy program,
colleges and universities do not count coding as a foreign language," said Calvin. "How would credits transfer? It would be bedlam for students, parents and counselors during an already stress-filled admissions process."
According to a recent survey of U.S. businesses, the bill would deal a blow to Michigan businesses, too. The study revealed that over half of U.S. businesses track their employees’ foreign language skills, 35% give an advantage to multilingual applicants, and one in six has lost business prospects due to a lack of employees with language skills, as reported by JNCL-NCLIS and the Michigan State University Collegiate Employment Research Institute.
"It is not an overstatement to say that language and culture are inextricably linked."
During a committee hearing for the measure, the bill's lone sponsor seemed to be confused about the exact content of the subject he is proposing to replace. Arguing for replacing languages, Rep. VanWoerkem expressed doubt that students even learn about other cultures in language classes, notes Dr. Julie Foss of the Michigan World Language Association (MIWLA).
“It is not an overstatement to say that language and culture are inextricably linked," asserts Howie Berman, Executive Director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).
"Culture is what gives words and phrases added context and texture, and provides the historical connection to society and culture," says Berman. "It’s the intercultural skills taught in the language classroom that will prepare our students for a 21st century workforce."
According to ACTFL, computer coding does not meet the definition of a "language" as outlined in the World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages, which highlights "Culture" as a key component to communication. The organization's position statement on "What is a human language" can be found on their website.
At the state level, Foss is reaching out to world language teachers in the house member’s district, which includes the city of Muskegon, to pursue action against this proposed legislation.