Spanish, French and ...SQL? The push to teach coding like a foreign language

"This is the future," said St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, of his SB 104, which would put coding on par with a foreign language in a high school student's education. [Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times]
"This is the future," said St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, of his SB 104, which would put coding on par with a foreign language in a high school student's education. [Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Feb. 7, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — Miami businesswoman Elizabeth De Zulueta speaks English and Spanish. She knows some Italian and Russian, too.

She's also a robotics engineer who knows how to code using technical training in computer science and electrical and mechanical engineering.

Having studied languages and coding, De Zulueta knows the value of both skills, and she can attest from her personal experience — while there are striking similarities in the mechanics of how each is learned — computer coding and foreign language are not the same.

"There are some essential parts of learning a foreign language that you're not going to get from coding," which derives from mathematics, said De Zulueta, who founded her own start-up robotics company, called Zulubots, in Miami-Dade's Kendall area.

Yet some Florida lawmakers are again proposing an innovative, but contentious, plan that would put coding and foreign language on equal footing in a public high school student's education.

Aimed at preparing students for high-tech jobs — like De Zulueta's — in a modern digital economy, the legislation (SB 104) has the backing of such influential powerhouses as Disney and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

"I love this idea. This is the future," said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who is driving the Senate bill this year. "Employers are valuing the skill of coding, and we should ensure that the education market is geared toward what employers want."

But the idea is drawing renewed criticism from educators and Hispanic advocacy groups — particularly in South Florida, which has the most diverse population in the state.

"I sort of comically applaud that some would want to categorize coding as a foreign language," said Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who speaks five languages and fiercely opposed the measure when it was first pitched in the 2016 session. Miami-Dade's school district is the largest in Florida and the fourth largest in the country.

"Coding cannot be seen as an equivalent substitute," Carvalho said. "It shouldn't be an either-or. It should be both — and a reality for all kids."

Brandes says the proposal is "not a mandate;" students who want to take a traditional foreign language could still do so.

His bill for the 2017 session will be heard by the Senate Education Committee on Monday afternoon, its first of two hearings in the chamber. A bipartisan House version (HB 265) — sponsored by Reps. Elizabeth Porter, R-Lake City, and Patricia Williams, D-Lauderdale Lakes — hasn't been considered yet.

Last year's measure, the first of its kind in the country, received mixed results. Despite similar concerns raised, the plan easily cleared the Senate with only 5 of 40 senators objecting. The House never held a floor vote, killing the bill for that session.

Under this year's bill, students — starting in the 2019-20 school year — who take two credits of computer coding and earn a related industry certification could then count that coursework toward two foreign language credits.

Coding, computer science and digital literacy courses are already provided to public elementary, middle and high school students. The bill wouldn't require schools to provide additional coding courses; students could use Florida Virtual School if their school didn't offer a specific class.

High school foreign language classes are electives and not required for Florida students to graduate. But those classes are typically necessary for college and university admissions, and taking a foreign language helps a high school student earn a "Scholar" designation on their diploma.

If the bill is enacted, Florida's public colleges and universities would have to accept coding classes as satisfying admissions requirements in foreign language. But private colleges and universities in Florida and any out-of-state institution would not have to count them.

That caveat is another reason opponents resist.

Carvalho warns students could potentially be "shut out of scholarships or admission at some very demanding colleges and universities because they didn't take foreign language," and he has concerns about equity in opportunity because some schools in Florida have better resources than others.

"I fear some kids, if they don't get foreign language in school, won't get it at all versus kids in other neighborhoods may very well get both, because their parents will see that they do," he said.

Some other school districts in Florida, such as those in Tampa Bay, are generally indifferent on the computer coding proposal. Hillsborough County Public Schools already offer coding in middle and high schools, so "it would not change anything for our district since we already offer the courses," spokeswoman Tanya Arja said.

Pasco County School District hasn't taken a position on the measure this year. "We appreciate that the bills are permissive," district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said.

The Florida Chamber and Disney — which each give millions of dollars each year in campaign contributions to Florida lawmakers — both have an army of lobbyists registered to fight in support of the bill this session. The chamber has 10 signed up, while Disney has eight.

Brittney Hunt, director of talent, education and quality of life policy for the Florida Chamber Foundation, called the computer coding bill a "forward-thinking step in the right direction toward closing the skills gap and preparing students to enter the workforce."

Disney did not return an email seeking comment Friday, but Brandes said the company's interest, too, is in a future workforce.

"They need Imagineers," he said. "I think they see there's real value there."

Critics don't disagree that coding is a valuable skill; they just stress it shouldn't replace or come at the expense of another asset.

"You need to be able to speak other languages, especially the kids who live here in Florida — which is a state that is so multicultural," said Mari Corugedo, Florida chapter director for the League of United Latin American Citizens. "It shouldn't be a trade-off. ... We know the benefits. The research is there: When a child knows more than one language, the brain works differently. It just makes no sense why they are replacing it with coding."

De Zulueta, the multilingual Miami robotics engineer and business owner, shares a similar concern: "Opening up the choice to students is great, but I think we're devaluing both, to be honest, if we say you can just trade one for the other."

Coding and foreign language are actually similar mechanically in how they're learned, she said. For instance, "one very important part of coding is your ability to think in patterns and to think algorithmically. When you're learning a foreign language, it's basically like pattern recognition," she said.

As well, she noted, both come with specific rules — algorithms for coding and grammar for language — and immersion is necessary in order to master both skills.

But, inherently, foreign language is different in its cultural and communicative benefits.

"With coding, sure, you're going to learn lingo and certain words," De Zulueta said. "But you're not training your ears and mouths to understand and say different sounds. ... Speaking and hearing are essential parts of learning a foreign language and those skills are not, at all, part of coding."

Contact Kristen M. Clark at Follow @ByKristenMClark