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Students at Penn are weighing in on whether computer languages should be able to satisfy the foreign language requirement.

Credit: Ananya Chandra , , ,

Spanish, French, Mandarin — and Java? As the debate to consider counting coding as a foreign language grows louder, members of the Penn community weigh in on the possibility of a similar policy here.

Last month in a 35-5 vote, Florida senators approved a bill that proposes allowing high school students to use computer coding to fill foreign language requirements. The law will also require all public Florida colleges and universities to accept this credit, although officials provide a caveat that this may not be accepted at other universities outside the state. This law will be implemented in the 2018-19 school year and will be the first of its kind in the country. Still, critics at Penn have concerns.

Technology Director of the Penn Language Center Edward Dixon is surprised by the assumption that coding could substitute foreign language. As someone with a background in both technology and foreign language, he says that there is a stark contrast between the solitary nature of coding and the community-oriented nature of language.

“Language learning is a different experience with interaction. It’s a social activity … students are not only learning about language and culture, but they’re learning to begin to understand and empathize with people who are different from themselves,” Dixon said. “In that way, language learning is a vehicle that puts students in the shoes of the other, which computer coding can’t do.”

As an example, he pointed to classes taught by French professor Melanie Peron, who connects her students with native speakers so they are able to listen to and converse with each other and share views on relevant social and global issues. Meeting and interacting with people from an entirely different background opens up a whole new world for students.

Dixon said foreign language study serves a humanistic purpose and exposes people to a global perspective, which is something valuable in college, the workplace and beyond.

Despite the concerns some Penn faculty hold, the bill to allow for coding as a foreign language has moved forward in Florida.

Sen. Jeremy Ring (D-Fla.), a former Yahoo executive, authored the Florida bill because he believes that technological skills are a necessity in today’s workforce. He reasons that the move will transform Florida into a national technological hub and believes that soon other states will follow his home state’s lead.

However DP Videographer and Engineering freshman Ming Zhang , who is studying linguistics and computer science, disagrees. He acknowledges that requiring students to learn some coding in high school, college or even elementary school would be beneficial because of the increased demand for people with programming skills, but he says that replacing one for the other is a step in the wrong direction.

“Computer languages, although they’re called languages, they’re not like human languages … they are formal languages — they are a system to express mathematical ideas — but you can’t use computer languages to communicate,” Zhang said.

Supporters of the new law argue that the four-year system of learning a foreign language isn’t ideal for gaining mastery or fluent communication and that the benefits of even a basic knowledge of coding would be helpful in any field of work. However, Zhang says that even though some students may not master the language, they still greatly benefit from the exposure to different ways of thinking, living and seeing the world that come with foreign language study.

“To require students to take at least one year of foreign language is not entirely for the purpose of being able to communicate in a different way. It’s just to have the exposure to a foreign language,” Zhang said. “If you are required to take some foreign language classes, you would at least see some different aspects of another culture,” he added.

Zhang himself speaks multiple languages — including American Sign Language, which he is studying at Penn.

One difference between his ASL class and other classes at Penn is the way his ASL professor gets the attention of students in the course after group discussions: instead of clapping his hands or calling out, he flickers the lights on and off. Differences like this provide insight into what another culture is like.

“Before taking the class, I had heard a lot about deaf culture in the United States, but I never actually met a lot of deaf people… that’s a very real exposure to the culture and I really like it,” Zhang said.

The ASL department had fought long and hard to finally be recognized as a language that counts to fill the foreign language requirement at Penn. However, ASL Program Coordinator Jami Fisher doesn’t really see a parallel between the coding debate and her department’s struggle.

Although she mentioned that she doesn’t have a particular basis for judging coding with regards to foreign language, she did state the arguments her department used in favor of counting ASL as a foreign language. Originally, some faculty had some misunderstandings about the nature of the language — they didn’t realize that it wasn’t a manual form of the dominant spoken language and that it doesn’t need a written component to have formal literature.

ASL is a naturally developed language like Chinese, Arabic or Spanish — an argument that, in her understanding, doesn’t really apply to coding. Because of this, learning ASL provides insight into another culture, which is the objective of the language requirement at Penn.

“I believe the purpose of learning another language is to broaden the experiences and potential connections to communities and people that might otherwise be out of reach without exploring languages other than what one learns natively,” Fisher said in an emailed statement.

Members of the Computer Science Department agree. Professor Rajeev Alur and Department Chair Sampath Kannan are both happy that legislators are taking interest in coding because of its importance in the workforce and because of the computational and logical thinking skills that it teaches students. However, they both feel that replacing foreign language with coding is not the way to go about incorporating it into the curriculum.

Alur suggested that a better alternative at Penn would be possibly allowing an introductory computer science class to substitute for a required math or reasoning course.

“My view is that computer programming is a really important skill that almost everyone at Penn needs, but it is not a substitute for the foreign language requirement,” Kannan wrote in an emailed statement.

College of Arts and Sciences Dean Dennis DeTurck said that comparing coding to foreign language is like comparing apples and oranges — they’re two separate things.

He also pointed out the miscommunication that can be caused by using the word "language" to refer to subjects other than natural languages . As a mathematician, he points to math as an example. Like coding or music, math is considered a universal language, but it’s not the same as a human language, and it doesn’t teach you the same things.

“The point of [foreign] language study is to provide deeper access to another culture,” DeTurck said. “For instance, even with American Sign Language, there is a deaf culture and without speaking the language, people who aren’t hearing impaired will have difficulty accessing that culture — they can only do it secondhand.”

DeTurck acknowledges coding as a valuable field of study — it’s why the College offers computer science as a joint degree with Engineering — but he says that they are not substitutes because they emphasize separate kinds of thinking. Although the different schools have different requirements for what counts and doesn’t count to fill foreign language requirements, DeTurck does not believe that Penn will allow coding to count as a foreign language.

Still, he said, there is room for possible compromise in the future.

“The liberal arts aren't something that is fossilized in stone where it’ll never change, because certainly today they’re different from [what they were in earlier versions of the curriculum],” DeTurck said. “As we’re reimagining the Formal Reasoning requirement … [we’re exploring] where the place for [coding] is in the liberal arts curriculum.” 

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