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

LA Johnson

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.

Copyright 2016 WFSU

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.
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