Coding not a replacement for modern languages but a complement

By Jason Cummings, Modern Language Department Head at Beaver

There is a lot of chatter in education circles about adding coding to K-12 curricula across the country, and Beaver is at the forefront of a national trend toward greater programming literacy. There is a lot of interest in how learning to program can create opportunities for our student to think outside the lines, drive their own learning processes, and create their own opportunities. While this is all very exciting, if your personal learning network looks anything like mine – a network of  language education professionals – there is a fair amount of concern and skepticism as well.

Language educators from around the world keep my Twitter feed spinning with fabulous ideas, resources, and connections that help me keep my Spanish classes fresh, but when the topic of a coding in the curriculum arises the reviews are mixed.

Much of this skepticism stems from several state legislatures having taken steps to introduce stand-alone computer programming curricula as replacements for foreign language requirements. In Texas, for example, public high school students will soon be able to fulfill their language requirements by learning to code (Kentucky, Oklahoma, New Mexico legislatures have taken similar steps) (More info in the Christian Science Monitor, Tech Republic, Smithsonian.)

While many in the tech world champion these developments, even the good people over at Code.org, the country’s foremost advocates for programming education, recognize how strained the parallel between coding and language learning really is. It makes me thankful Beaver has taken a more enlightened approach to teaching programming (and to teaching languages) than the legislatures in the states listed above.

Those who insist upon the parallels between foreign language learning and learning to write code (see this article in Edutopia, for example), often point to the similarities in the need to learn a series of grammatical and syntactical rules and then apply them to a lexicon in order to make meaning.

This is all fair but a language learning process that focuses on grammar and syntax is just the sort of traditionally reductive pedagogy from which progressive language educators have worked to break free for several decades now.

If, as the article suggests, human language is made up of langue (signifying systems) and parole (culturally infused speech acts), coding, it would seem, is 99 percent the former with all the human culture of your insurance company’s automated phone menu. One computer science teacher quoted in Smithsonian says his Golden Rule for coding is “You have to be specific in your language […] One typo and you can mess everything up.”

In the process of learning a foreign language at Beaver we encourage students to make all of the mistakes they need to as they are taking risks and striving to communicate and connect with others. When pushing my students to develop oral fluency in Spanish, I frequently ask them to throw grammatical caution to the wind and to simply communicate their ideas.

To be clear, while it is misguided to suggest learning to code and learning a foreign language are parallel processes, that doesn’t mean that one can’t complement the other.

At Beaver, even in our most elementary language classes students use coding to practice and develop their language skills while expressing themselves creatively through the simple programs that they create.

For example, Spanish 1 students have used Pencil Code to create simple Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style simulated dialogs, using code to imagine the myriad directions simple dialogs might take (check out this one). In a level two class, students interacted with Scratch entirely in Spanish (the website, the help menu, the instructions and all of the commands … not to mention the communication used for group collaboration) in order to produce simple animations online (here is an example).

While the language in these final products is relatively basic, the process by which the students used the target language to solve a complex problem (i.e. negotiating a new web application entirely in Spanish) was not. In other examples, more advanced students created web tutorials on HTML and site design entirely in French, and Chinese 1 students practiced their written characters by teaching the computer to draw them.

To be sure, as Modern Language faculty we are largely new to computer programming and we know our initial efforts are the very beginning where The Coded Curriculum will take us. Coding and foreign language are two different things – but like two very different colleagues or friends, than can complement one another beautifully.

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