Coding v. Foreign Languages: Do We Really Have to Choose?

Coding v. Foreign Languages: Do We Really Have to Choose?

A personal account of the importance of learning both computer programming and foreign languages at an early age

April 29, 2014

The Coding v. Foreign Language Debate

Earlier this year, a surprising debate ignited among educators and techies on the relative merits of studying a world language versus learning to code. This debate went mainstream when Kentucky became the latest state to consider allowing students to receive foreign language credits for computer programing coursework. This debate struck a chord in me because learning to code and studying world languages in my formative years have equipped me with the diverse and valuable life skills that have defined my career.

Growing Up Coding & The Benefits of Coding as a Kid

1994… Yahoo! was founded, Al Gore coined the term "Information Superhighway" and Microsoft released its beta version of Windows 95. It was also the year I learned to code. I was nine years old and in the second grade. Without iPad apps or Code.org’s Hour of Code that now exist to teach kids how to code, I experimented with HTML and eventually built my first website. Coding was trial-and-error for me; the result was seeing something come to life through < p > and < div > tags, elements of code that mean little on their own but when pieced together correctly create something.

Through learning to code, I began to think critically, problem solve and correct errors through careful checking of my own work. Scanning lines of code to find a one-character error that will render all of your hard work useless is frustrating but also provides a lesson in patience and determination.

Coding also gave me confidence: I created something on my own that many adults couldn’t do. I learned that with focus and persistence, I could produce something that people around the world could visit and learn from. I truly had the world at my fingertips through coding.

The Transition to Foreign Language Acquisition

I started learning Spanish in sixth grade from an energetic native speaker who filled class time with authentic Spanish music and skits to simulate real-world conversations. Spanish came easily to me, likely from the structured approach to learning how to code four years earlier. I continued Spanish into my high school years when I met a teacher who encouraged me to study Russian. I was ready for a challenge, so I started learning the Cyrillic alphabet and how to write a new set of characters.

I quickly became smitten with all things Russian and started visiting a local babushka, who spoke little English. We ate borscht while she pummeled me with questions about my life—entirely in Russian. Although I frequently looked at her with a puzzled look on my face, da and frequent smiles got me by. I became family to her, and she inspired me seek out new relationships with people who could expand my worldview.

The Importance of Real-Life Language Learning

During high school, I was fortunate to take two trips abroad: a four-week structured program in Russia and a two-week spring break trip to explore Spain with a friend. These trips allowed me to put my classroom language learning to the test and see if I could survive communicating with native speakers at native speeds.

From each of these experiences, I returned home with dramatically improved language skills, a deep gratitude for my upbringing and a desire to experience as much of the world as possible. Learning a new language opened up the world to me: cafes where I could converse with locals, museums where I could read descriptions of art on display, public transportation systems I could begin to navigate. I felt comfortable dealing in foreign currencies, ordering off of diverse menus and exploring new cities on my own. In short, this experience helped me grow as an individual and a student.

The Convergence of Technology & Foreign Languages

I now work for a company that develops K-12 digital world language courses. Bringing together experts in computer programming and the teaching of foreign languages is crucial to our success: linguists create the world language curriculum, while our developers take that course material and build interactive exercises to engage students.

Our digital courses are bringing language opportunities to students in small schools that couldn’t afford a traditional approach to world language instruction, as well as to schools where world language programs are being reduced or eliminated due to budget cuts. I see firsthand the doors world languages open for many students, preparing them for success in college and beyond. Middlebury Interactive’s developers and linguists both play a fundamental role in our students’ education.

Why Do We Need to Choose?

Instead of debating which is more beneficial for our students, why can’t we recognize the value of both coding and world languages as important 21st Century skills and the unique opportunities they each create? Coding could never have given me the rush I felt when seeing Red Square and the Kremlin for the first time, nor could foreign language study have given me the skills necessary to play a hands-on role at a leading educational technology company.  There is a lot of discussion about preparing students for the global economy, but we will fall short of that goal if we choose one critical 21st Century skill over the other.

Erin McCormick
Originally a Jersey girl, Erin fled the traffic of the tri-state area for the quaint town of Middlebury for college and never left. She runs Middlebury Interactive’s marketing team, where her passions for technology, languages, writing and design collide. When she’s not tweeting new marketing trends or critiquing TV advertisements, she’s likely shopping on Etsy, road tripping on the back roads of Vermont or sampling craft beers.
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