Spanish, French, HTML: The Proposal to Offer Computer Programming as a Foreign Language

Feb 4, 2016

What if high-schoolers in Virginia could take a computer programming class instead of French or Spanish? Lawmakers in Richmond are considering allowing that swap, as one way to get more kids into computer science.

With talk of gigahertz and infinite loops, Intro to Computer Programming at Henrico County’s Deep Run High School, certainly sounds like a foreign language class. And if some Virginia lawmakers get their way, it could also count as a foreign language.

Currently, to earn an advanced high school diploma in the state, students need to complete three years of one language, or two years of two languages. But if any number of a suite proposed bills on the table at the General Assembly become law, students could count computer programming as one of those languages.

It's an idea that Arvind Anand, a sophomore at Deep Run, could get behind.

President Barack Obama codes with students in an undated photo.
Credit whitehouse.gov

“That would actually make my year, not only does it make sense, it's something that I'm interested in,” Anand said. “Because in Spanish class earlier today I was just sitting with my head down like, ‘Why do I have to do this?’ But here I feel like I can express my interests better.”

That enthusiasm is why Anand's programming teacher, Chris Neville, says it may not be the best idea. He says it's important to expose students to a little of everything.

"Some kids aren’t necessarily ever going to use Spanish, the kids who really need it, are probably the kids who don't want to take it,” Neville said. “I don't believe in really locking kids into what they want to do right now, because I changed my mind 14 times before I decided what I was going to do."

And besides, says Neville, the fundamentals of programming, like logical reasoning and problem solving, are more in line with math than foreign language.

Still, Neville says, there is one parallel - communication.

"I like to say if you can communicate your solution to a problem to a computer, you can communicate it to anybody, because a computer is going to do exactly what you tell it to do, not what you want it to do,” Neville said. “Now I can’t necessarily communicate what I had for breakfast, but technical communication is definitely there.”  

Virginia isn't the first state to suggest the programming, foreign language swap. A similar bill was defeated in New Mexico, passed in Kentucky, and still up in the air in Florida.

Other states, like Arkansas, have just gone ahead and made computer science it’s own separate requirement for a high school diploma. Plus, the state provided $5 million in funding to help schools get properly trained teachers.

The conversation comes at a time when educators and politicians are pushing computer science as an important course of study -- one that could lead to much-needed, well-paying jobs.

Delegate Tag Greason, a Republican from Northern Virginia, is sponsoring the bill in Virginia.

"China will create 2 million computer scientists every year,” Greason said. “The United States -- 38,000."

Greason says the primary purpose of the bill is to help funnel more students into this high-demand field.

"Once we do that, if we don't give them a pathway to actually follow, the steps,” Greason said. “If you want to ‘major’ in computer science, there's no pathway for you. That's what we're trying to accomplish."

Greason says he's open to a conversation with fellow lawmakers about whether replacing foreign language is the best way to make that happen.

“That might not be the perfect solution, our goal is to have a dialog,” Greason said.  

And it’s a good time for the dialog, President Obama recently pledged $4 billion in federal dollars to states that show a commitment to getting more students to computer science.