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Bill would allow Florida students to replace foreign language with computer language courses

Photo illustration. [AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes]
Published Oct. 19, 2015

LAND O'LAKES — Sunlake High School sophomore Chris Collins sees little value in his Spanish language courses.

"I was bored out," said Collins, 15. "If I want to travel in the future, I'd probably want to learn the language. I'm not planning to travel."

He much prefers learning the syntax and structure of computer programming, a foundation for the burgeoning international technology trade.

"Why can't code be a language?" he wondered. "I think it should."

State Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Margate Democrat who made his fortune as a Yahoo executive, aims to make it so.

With the backing of key Senate Republican leaders, Ring has filed Senate Bill 468 to allow high school students to replace their two-year foreign language graduation requirement with two years of computer coding courses.

"Obviously, if you can have computer language skills, you can communicate with people all over the world," he explained. "Technology is the great equalizer."

His proposal, similar to one that failed in the 2014 Legislature, resonates nationally as education and political leaders seek to more closely tie career skills to classroom lessons. The rapid expansion of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs along the way highlights the initiative.

But efforts to add coding into the languages curriculum have met with varying degrees of success in several states. They have fallen short in Kentucky, New Mexico and Oregon while winning out in Oklahoma and Texas, where the provision is set to expire in 2016.

One of the biggest issues is trying to equate coding with a spoken language. Coding is, by definition, a set of strings that determines how a computer behaves, devoid of cultural lessons and person-to-person communication.

"There are so few states that even have a foreign language requirement, and it's such a vital skill for all students," said Marty Abbott, American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages' executive director. "We hate to see any other subject put in place of having students learn a foreign language."

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in 2010 that just 18 percent of Americans reported speaking a language other than English, compared to 53 percent of Europeans who spoke two or more languages. A recent University of Florida survey, meanwhile, suggested that two-thirds of Floridians support requiring Spanish language instruction in public schools.

The only subject that got more backing as a required course? Computer skills.

Abbott suggested that Florida, like other states, could get both. Just place the computer graduation requirement within math and science credits, she said.

One of the nation's leading advocates of teaching students to code takes the position that computer language isn't a "natural" language. When Kentucky and New Mexico lawmakers contemplated bills similar to Ring's, Code.org's state policy and advocacy manager Amy Hirotaka wrote on her group's blog that computer sciences, if not considered a discipline, fit best with math and sciences.

"We still believe (coding) is fundamentally different than a world language," she said.

She declined to comment on the specifics of the Florida bill, but said she viewed it as a good starting point.

"We are really excited about all of the momentum around computer science in Florida, and we're really excited this bill has been introduced," she said.

Owen Barno, an eighth-grader at Liberty Middle School in Tampa, shared that enthusiasm. The 13-year-old, who is taking coding and Spanish courses this fall, finds them "equally fun and engaging."

Even if allowed to replace one with the other, Owen said, he'd likely still enroll in both.

"Coding I'd definitely take. The way everyone is leaning toward is computer-based everything. Coding is going to be a big part of the world," he said. "And Spanish is a language that, especially down here, is good to know."

Sunlake High sophomore Mark Johnson said he understood the inclination to call coding a language. In his course on the coding language Python, he said, students learn programming sentence order and other rules, similar to his French class grammar lessons.

Some differences are stark.

"I feel like the whole point of having a language class in high school is to expand your horizons . . . to broaden your perspective of learning and get you more familiar with the world," Johnson said. "With computer language, you talk to a computer."

Ring said his primary objective is to push more coding into public schools without adding the burden of more mandates. Offering it as an option within the foreign language requirement, recognized by state colleges and the Bright Futures scholarship program, accomplishes that aim, he suggested.

"The same way we have foreign language requirements — Spanish, French, German, even Mandarin Chinese these days — we should have the same requirements for computer language," he said.

So far, his proposal does not have a House companion.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.

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