US state Maryland’s legislature is considering a bill to allow computer coding courses to fulfil the foreign language graduation requirement for high school. A similar bill passed the Florida state Senate in 2017 (but was ultimately rejected by the full Legislature), and a federal version is being considered in Congress.
The animating idea behind these bills is that computer coding has become a valuable skill. This is certainly true. But the proposal that foreign language learning can be by computer coding knowledge is misguided: It stems from a widely held but mistaken belief that science and technology education should take precedence over subjects like English, history and foreign languages.
As a professor of languages and literatures, I am naturally sceptical of such a position. I fervently believe that foreign language learning is essential for children’s development into informed and productive citizens of the world. But even more urgent is my alarm at the growing tendency to accept and even foster the decline of the sort of interpersonal human contact that learning languages both requires and cultivates.
Language is an essential — perhaps the essential — marker of our species. We learn in and through natural languages; we develop our most fundamental cognitive skills by speaking and hearing languages; and we ultimately assume our identities as human beings and members of communities by exercising those languages. Our profound and impressive ability to create complex tools with which to manipulate our environments is secondary to our ability to conceptualise and communicate about those environments in natural languages.
The difference between natural and computer languages is not merely one of degree, with natural languages’ involving vocabularies that are several orders of magnitude larger than those of computer languages. Natural languages aren’t just more complex versions of the algorithms with which we teach machines to do tasks; they are also the living embodiments of our essence as social animals. We express our love and our losses, explore beauty, justice and the meaning of our existence, and even come to know ourselves all through natural languages.
The irony is that few people appreciate the uniqueness of human language more than coders working in artificial intelligence, who wrestle with the difficulty of replicating our cognitive abilities. Computer scientist Alan Turing noted that the question of whether a machine can think is incredibly difficult to determine, not least because of the lack of a clear definition of “thinking”; he proposed investigating instead the more tractable question of whether a machine can convince a human interlocutor that it’s human — the so-called Turing test.
One of the important lessons of Turing’s test is the reminder that in our interactions with other people, we are fundamentally limited in how much we can know about another’s thoughts and feelings, and that this limitation and the desire to transcend it is essential to our humanity. In other words, for us humans, communication is about much more than getting information or following instructions; it’s about learning who we are by interacting with others.
The interpersonal essence of language learning extends to learning as a whole. We know that small-group, in-person instruction is more effective than traditional lectures. We ask questions, are asked in return, and we learn more, learn faster and retain more when we care about the people we are interacting with. It’s no accident that despite the initial enthusiasm generated by MOOCs, or massive online open courses, they have in fact been a major disappointment, with completion rates as low as 5 per cent. By comparison, online courses with smaller groups of students and direct feedback from the professor show completion rates as high as 85 per cent.
In an age of ever-rising inequality and student debt, it’s understandable that policymakers should seek to maximise the skills that seem the most marketable. And there is no doubt that computer programming is a valuable tool.
But this is also a time when we are becoming increasingly isolated from our communities and alienated from any notion of a common good. We need to invest more, not less, in language learning, and in the human contact it epitomises.
William Egginton is a professor of the humanities at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “The Splintering of the American Mind: Identity Politics, Inequality, and Community on Today’s College Campuses.”