French, Spanish, German ... Java? Making Coding Count As A Foreign Language

Mar 1, 2016
Originally published on March 2, 2016 12:10 pm

Florida is poised to become the first state to allow computer coding to fulfill a foreign-language requirement in high school. In a competitive job market, the thinking goes, computer skills are as important as speaking another language.

At SAIL High School in Tallahassee, a 3-D printer whirs away. It's turning PVC pipe into a red, Lego-like piece for a robot.

This is the OctoPiRates robotics club. These students will soon compete in a national contest with their hand-built robot. It features a square, metal frame with eight rubber wheels and a scooping arm.

Many of the OctoPiRates members, like Ram Moore, are self-taught.

"I mostly learned on my own, and I took AP Computer Science," Moore explains. "And from there, I taught myself some other skills."

Another student, Alexander Olson, says he's forgotten a lot of the Spanish he took for two years in middle school, and wishes he had learned coding instead: "This would have stuck with me a lot longer."

Most technology runs on computer code. But it's not widely taught in Florida's public schools. Lawmakers are hoping to change that.

State Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Democrat, says he wants students to add coding languages like Python, Java or C++ into the mix of traditional languages like French and Spanish.

"Whether you're going into politics, sales, it doesn't really matter," Ring says. "You need to have a technology understanding in order to compete in life, and in a professional environment."

The idea is getting wide support. Florida students don't have to take a foreign language to graduate from a public high school — they can choose other electives. But the state's public university system does require at least two years of study in another language, and Ring's bill would allow coding to count for that.

Not everyone is happy. The Florida Foreign Language Association's Linda Markley argues that coding is not the same.

"World languages meet the needs of the business industry today," Markley says. She adds that her group has spoken with business leaders and, "they're in agreement. If they need to hire someone for a job, world language skill is going to trump any other skill they feel they can train them on the spot."

Some executives, however, like the idea of coding as a replacement language.

Like Microsoft Chairman John Thompson: "If you had a chance to take coding and coding triggered a thought in your mind that, 'I can do this and do it well,' ... Why wouldn't you do that? I think that's a great idea."

Florida isn't the only state building coding into the curriculum. In Texas, students can take computer science if they first take a foreign language and perform poorly. Alabama now allows computer science to count toward math graduation requirements.

Florida would be the first state to allow coding as a substitute for foreign language. The bill is expected to pass this week and Gov. Rick Scott has indicated he'll sign it.

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Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Florida, like in many other states, college-bound high school students have to take a foreign language - maybe Spanish, French and soon maybe coding. Florida is poised to become the first state to allow computer coding to fulfill that foreign language requirement. Supporters say in a competitive job market, computer skills are as important as speaking another language. Here's Lynn Hatter of member station WFSU.

LYNN HATTER, BYLINE: At Leon County's SAIL High School in Florida, a 3-D printer whirs away. It's turning PVC pipe into a red, Lego-like piece for a robot. This is the OctoPiRates Robotics Club. The students will soon compete in a national contest with their hand-built robot. It features a square, metal frame with eight rubber wheels and a scooping arm. Teacher Jason Burdick explains.

JASON BURDICK: So, yeah, these are our flight manipulators. So this is where our ball intake comes. We grab the ball, we sandwich it between these two jaws.

HATTER: Many of the OctoPiRates, like students Ram Moore, are self-taught.

RAM MOORE: I mostly learned on my own and I took AP computer science and then from there I've taught myself a lot of higher skills.

HATTER: Most technology runs on computer code, but it's not widely taught in Florida's public schools. Lawmakers hope to change that. State Senator Jeremy Ring wants students to have the option. Instead of taking French or Spanish, why not a coding language like Python, Java or C-plus-plus?

JEREMY RING: Whether you go into politics, it doesn't really matter - sales. You need to have a technology understanding in order to compete in life and in order to compete in a professional environment.

HATTER: The idea is getting wide support. Florida students don't have to take a foreign language to graduate from a public high school. But the state's public university system does require at least two years of study in another language. Not everyone is happy. The Florida Foreign Language Association's Linda Markley argues coding is not the same as a foreign language.

LINDA MARKLEY: World languages meets the needs of the business industry today. And we have interviewed them and they are in agreement that when it comes right down to it if they need to hire someone for a job or - a language skill is going to trump any other skill that they feel they can train them on the spot.

HATTER: But business leaders seem to like the idea of substituting computer coding for a foreign language. Here's Microsoft chairman John Thompson.

JOHN THOMPSON: If you had a chance to take coding and coding triggered a thought in your mind that, gee, I can do this and do it well and it has the long-term consequences of a career in technology, which right now are some of the highest paying careers in our country, why wouldn't you do that? I think that's a great idea.

HATTER: Back at SAIL High School, student Alexander Olson says he would've rather taken a coding class than the two years of Spanish he got in middle school and has largely forgotten now.

ALEXANDER OLSON: I think this would've stuck with me a lot longer, and it would've been something that I'm a lot more interested in.

HATTER: Texas has something similar to Florida. In that state, students can take computer science if they first take a foreign language and perform poorly. Alabama now allows computer science to count toward math graduation requirements. Florida would be the first to substitute coding for a foreign language. The bill is expected to pass this week, and the governor has indicated he'll sign it. For NPR News, I'm Lynn Hatter in Tallahassee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.