We are nearly five months into Britain’s “Year of Code,” an effort to promote computer-coding skills among Britons young and old. The British media’s coverage spiked in February, when the campaign’s director admitted she couldn’t code a computer to save her life, but has ebbed since.
The comparison with foreign language-learning is appropriate at the moment because a number of U.S. states are moving toward letting high-school students substitute computer coding classes for foreign-language requirements. (In Texas and Oklahoma, it’s done and dusted.) Advocates of the change argue that, aside from coding’s being a wildly useful skill at the moment, learning it exercises some of the same abilities as learning Spanish, French, or Chinese: pattern recognition, memorization, and concentration, to name a few.
Skeptics agree that coding is a skill worth teaching, but question the comparison with foreign languages. Yes, it involves recognizing and working within certain sets of rules—but then, so does math.
It’s of course invidious to suppose that you can’t learn both a foreign language and how to code, but there’s only so much time in a school day. My concern centers on the learning process. From what I know of coding, precision is essential. An extra
somewhere in your work can throw the whole thing into disarray. Foreign languages are very different: Even native speakers make hundreds of “mistakes” in a day, and it’s the rare one that actually trips up communication. Understanding this is critical to learning a foreign language. If you constantly aim for exactitude, you won’t speak a word; and if you don’t speak a word, you’ll never improve. It’s a lesson worth applying elsewhere in life, and I’m not sure you get it from coding.
Or maybe you do. I’d guess there are readers out there who know miles more about computer code than I do; perhaps they’ll weigh in?
And on the other hand, from what I’ve seen recently of interns entering journalism, students might do well to have a little more precision pounded into them.