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¿Habla Java? Why Coding is Now Rivaling Traditional Foreign Language in High Schools

Coding as a foreign language

Florida recently became the first state to allow computer coding to fulfill a high school foreign language requirement. In a job market where computer programming skills are arguably just as useful as fluency in a second language, some high schools are taking action by teaching programming.

While replacing a foreign language requirement is certainly controversial, implementing coding courses at the high school level is not. With initiatives like The Hour of Code—an hour-long introduction to coding designed to teach anyone the basics—more and more schools are embracing the reality that computer programming isn’t just for aspiring tech pros.

“Computer programming is, in an overblown but still legitimate sense, the literacy of the 21st century,” says former language instructor and programmer Brady Dill. “By studying computer programming, a student learns a potentially useful tool that can be applied to a lucrative career path.”

Whether or not more states follow in Florida’s footsteps, there’s no denying that teaching programming is a valuable skill for today’s youth considering the current job market.

Coding vs. programming

Let’s get the lingo right when it comes to teaching programming. When schools talk about adding “coding courses” or “programming curriculum,” are they talking about the same thing? Yes. The two terms are essentially interchangeable.

Programming implies a certain level of coding skills and experience, finesse even. Perhaps to help make computer programming seem more accessible, the term coding came into usage to describe the basic act of writing code without the implications of being a full-blown programmer.

Both terms get tossed around quite a bit when people discuss training students. But whether schools are talking about coding or programming, they’re referring to the same skill set.

The debate about teaching programming as a foreign language

Florida’s decision to allow programming to fulfill the foreign language requirement is somewhat contested, according to an article in the Miami Herald. Opponents fear that coding, though a valuable skill, doesn’t provide students with the cultural literacy that a traditional foreign language would. This cultural awareness is increasingly important in our globalized world.

Dill emphasizes that the US is actually far behind almost any other country in terms of foreign language literacy. “By studying foreign languages, students increase understanding of their own native language and learn to communicate with other humans—something computer programming cannot do,” he says.

Many educators and employers would like to see schools teaching both programming and foreign languages as globalization continues to impact our industries. “We're interacting more between cultures,” says Mike Olson, co-founder of SmartInternChina. “Learning a prominent foreign language (such as Mandarin or Spanish) is a top need for young Americans.”

Olson believes that skills in both programming and foreign languages are important for students to stay competitive in an increasingly global market, and he notes that other countries are already offering coding in public classrooms.

Yet with many schools already struggling through financial trouble, the day coding becomes part of widespread curriculum might still be a long way off. “We're slowly seeing coding classes being offered outside of school,” Olson says. Those who value the skill set that comes with learning code—and who can afford it—will go elsewhere for that aspect of their education until it becomes part of mainstream classrooms.

Programming in school develops important skills

Despite the naysayers, computer programming comes with its own set of valuable skills for students. Computer coding languages are universal in their way. While there are many coding languages a student could learn, the basic tenets of programming can allow students to cross cultures technologically.

While the skillset students learn from coding is not the same as what they learn from a foreign language, there is much more to it than gaining technical proficiency. “A programming language teaches you more than just the language,” says Jarod Spiewak, CEO of Cicada Development. “It teaches you how to solve complex problems. It teaches patience, teamwork, how to conduct research and how to ask good questions.”

Programming in school prepares students for the job market

Mastering the actual skill of coding is no small benefit either. Spiewak says the current demand for developers is much higher than the market can supply. He adds that many of those developers are self-taught, since their school curriculum did not offer coding options.

“More jobs now require programming knowledge,” Spiewak says. And those jobs aren’t solely in technology fields. Nearly every industry could use employees with coding skills, from banks to retail stores. “I used to work exclusively in marketing and I never saw a job ad that didn't require HTML knowledge,” Spiewak says.

And if students do take to programming, the gig is pretty sweet. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the annual median wage for computer programmers in 2015 was at $79,530.1

As technology becomes further integrated into every industry, many believe children need to be equipped with basic coding courses. “Allowing students to be exposed to something that's becoming fundamental in our everyday lives will allow for the market to meet demand,” Spiewak says.

Programming by the numbers

There are arguments on both sides of the spectrum, but let’s look at the numbers. When comparing the number of jobs requiring knowledge of programming languages to those requiring foreign language fluency, it’s easy to see why Florida opted to make the change.

We used real-time job analysis software to analyze the difference in demand for the five most popular foreign languages versus the five most popular programming languages over the past year. In the foreign language group, which included Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic and Portuguese, there were a total of 505,481 jobs available.2 In the programming language group, made up of Java, C, C++, Python and C#, there were 959,761 jobs available.3

This means there were 190 percent more career opportunities for those with programming proficiencies. With numbers like that, it’s clear that today’s youth can really reap the rewards of coding skills in their future careers.

Coding isn’t just for kids

While schools endeavor to start teaching programming to younger generations, plenty of adults are picking up tutorials and learning the ropes themselves. The ability to code is a marketable skill, and computer programming is easier to break into than many once thought.

Wondering if programming could be a good fit for you? Find out if you’re naturally cut out to be a programmer in this article: Is Computer Programming Hard? Not if You Have These 7 Characteristics!


1Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary. (analysis of jobs that required Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic or Portuguese, Aug. 01, 2015 – Jul. 31, 2016.) (analysis of jobs that required Java, C, C++, Python or C#, Aug. 01, 2015 – Jul. 31, 2016.)

Brianna Flavin

Brianna is a content writer for Collegis Education who writes student focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She earned her MFA in poetry and teaches as an adjunct English instructor. She loves to write, teach and talk about the power of effective communication.

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