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Several decades ago we were either amused or appalled upon learning that a respected U.S. university had awarded an advanced degree to a candidate who had claimed Fortran to satisfy the university's requirement for proficiency in a foreign language!
Many serious computer scientists did indeed view Fortran as quite foreign and still do, but hardly in the sense that academic institutions had intended. Neither the skills required to master a real foreign language nor the pleasures that come from using it bear any relationship to mastery of Fortran or any other programming language. Indeed the word "language" conveys an entirely different concept when applied to verbal communication versus formal computer logic.
Last week we were startled by an E-mail article from Electronic Products with an attention-grabbing headline:
Growing number of schools are letting students replace foreign language classes with coding
Following in the footsteps of Kentucky, Georgia, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington, Florida is the latest state [to] engage in this debate.
The article goes on to quote arguments from both sides on the issue of whether academic institutions should consider programming languages as "foreign languages". If six states say yes, can the rest of the nation or the whole world be far bahind?
The problem is that we can't easily increase the number of hours in the school-day or the number of school-days in a year. When we add a major area to the curriculum, we must take away or severely diminish some other area. In this case students are obviously being invited to forgo studying French, German, or another language of literature, science, and commerce. That's in a society that already boasts the developed world's lowest level of international language competence.
A more sensible approach is to include introductory-level computer programming as a topic in the mathematics curriculum. Competent mathematics teachers are already well-acquainted with logical thinking, and should have experience in communicating to their students an appreciation of the elegance of problem solving based upon very much the same principles we hope they'll apply in programming.
Further study beyond the introductory level can be accommodated by an extra-curricular (ungraded, non-credit) computer club, as many high-schools already support. Meanwhile, high-schools and universities can continue to offer and even require foreign-language study as a basic pillar of well-rounded education along with other traditional subjects.
Last modified 24 February 2016
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