Education Opinion

Coding Versus Foreign Language Study

By Walt Gardner — July 19, 2017 1 min read
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For as long as I can remember, the study of a foreign language has been required for all students applying to college. The only changes were those most likely to pay off in the workplace. But now the argument is made that fluency in coding is far more useful and should substitute (“Learn a Language, but Not a Human One,” The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 17).

I understand the need for coding proficiency. But I think something is lost when we rely on apps to do the work for us. There is nothing like being able to communicate in a foreign language in one’s own voice, in the same way there is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting in person. If I’m wrong, then why do heads of states continue to fly around the world to meet their counterparts when they could rely on Skype and the appropriate apps?

Beyond the practical aspects, learning a foreign language by its very nature is enriching. The best apps are no substitute for immersing oneself in another culture. Yes, apps can provide instantaneous translation of words and phrases, but they are no match for appreciating the culture.

I’m fluent in Spanish, primarily thanks to the three years I had in high school and less so to three more years in college. I use it every single day here in Los Angeles, where the ability to communicate in Spanish has been a blessing in establishing ties and enduring relationships with countless workers. I’m glad that I can do so without having to rely on apps.

Would I have been better off learning how to code? That all depends on the purpose of education. I continue to believe that although training and education overlap, they are not synonymous. The former (coding) involves techniques, while the latter (foreign language) involves concepts. Both are necessary, but schools today are pressured to primarily teach marketable techniques. I’m personally glad that I was required to learn a foreign language.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.