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Computer Science is Not a Foreign Language

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Suddenly, a new idea is gaining steam: that computer science should count as a foreign language credit. A bill is moving forward in the Kentucky senate that would allow high school students to take computer programming classes for a foreign language credit. New Mexico, too, introduced legislation that’d let students to forgo Spanish, French, German, or other language offerings, for computer science. Texas has already made the move.

At a time when most states still don’t allow computer science to count for anything other than an elective, and an even larger majority of schools don’t even offer computer science, efforts to expand access to the critical 21st-century subject are much needed and appreciated. So why not count programming language as foreign language credits? These efforts could actually undermine the ability of students to have access to this critical field. Here’s why:

Computer science is more than code
It’s important to teach our kids computer science, not just coding. Computer science covers how the Internet works, how to analyze big data and how technology impacts the world around us. Code is a part of that, but it’s more a tool to interact with computers to make your ideas come to life. Over time, programming languages will change, but the fundamental concepts of computer science — like logic and problem solving — are universal.

Its more math and science than anything
Computer science fits within the disciplines of math and science, and specifically strengthens math concepts like geometry, functions and variables, as well as science concepts such as experimentation and modeling/simulation. Additionally, computer science is about breaking down large problems, working in sequence and critical thinking.

Although we use the term “programming language” to refer to C++, Java, Python, and so on, these aren’t natural languages. Spanish has a vocabulary of 10,000 words, with a consistent grammatical and sentence structure. In contrast, a typical computing language has a vocabulary of about 100 words, and the real work is learning how to put these words together to build a complex program.

Departmental and teacher certification problems
Ideally, computer science should be considered as its own subject within the K-­12 system, but typically it’s lumped in with math, science or business.

This has already confused administrators, educators and decision­makers about how to treat computer science. Allowing it to satisfy a foreign language credit adds to this confusion. Additionally, in many states, teacher certification pathways for computer science will go awry if courses are shifted into foreign language departments. The idea that foreign language teachers will end up instructing students in computer science may seem unlikely, yet departmental and teacher credentialing conflicts have arisen in districts that allow computer programming to count as a foreign language.

College and university admissions requirements
If computer science is counted as a foreign language credit toward high school graduation, students who take it as a replacement for a spoken language may fail to be accepted into colleges and universities that require traditional spoken foreign language credits as entrance requirements.

Widespread support for computer science as a mathematics or science credit
17 states and Washington, DC have adopted policies allowing Advanced Placement (AP) or rigorous computer science to count toward a mathematics or science credit. And at least five states are already moving to adopt this policy. Code.org and Computing in the Core, along with Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook, the College Board, the Computer Science Teachers Association and numerous other organizations, support a policy allowing computer science to count toward mathematics or science graduation requirements.

- Amy Hirotaka
State Policy and Advocacy Manager
Code.org

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