From The Wall Street Journal:
Donald Trump, whose wife speaks five languages, just wrapped up a pair of trips to Europe during which he spoke only English. Good for him. If Mr. Trump studied a language in college or high school, as most of us were required to, it was a complete waste of his time. I took five years of French and can’t even talk to a French poodle.
Maybe there’s a better way for students to spend their time. Last month Apple CEO Tim Cook urged the president: “Coding should be a requirement in every public school.” I propose we do a swap.
Why do American schools still require foreign languages? Translating at the United Nations is not a growth industry. In the 1960s and ’70s everyone suggested studying German, as most scientific papers were in that language. Or at least that’s what they told me. In the ’80s it was Japanese, since they ruled manufacturing and would soon rule computers. In the ’90s a fountain of wealth was supposed to spout from post-Communist Moscow, so we all needed to learn Russian. Now parents elbow each other getting their children into immersive Mandarin programs starting in kindergarten.
Don’t they know that the Tower of Babel has been torn down? On your average smartphone, apps like Google Translate can do real-time voice translation. No one ever has to say worthless phrases like la plume de ma tante anymore. The app Waygo lets you point your phone at signs in Chinese, Japanese or Korean and get translations in English. Sometime in the next few years you’ll be able to buy a Bluetooth-based universal translator for your ear.
Yet students still need to take at least two years of foreign-language classes in high school to attend most four-year colleges. Three if they want to impress the admissions officer. Four if they’re masochists. Then they need to show language competency to graduate most liberal-arts programs.
. . . .
The U.S. is falling behind. In 2014 England made computing a part of its national primary curriculum. Estonia had already started coding in its schools as early as first grade. The Netherlands, Belgium and Finland also have national programs.
Maybe the U.S. can start the ball rolling by requiring colleges and high schools to allow computer languages to count as foreign languages. A handful of high schools already teach the Java computer language using a free tool called BlueJ. Nonprofit Code.org exposes students to a visual programming language called Blockly. To compete in this dog-eat-dog world, America should offer Python and Ruby on Rails instead of French and Spanish.
Knowledge is good. Great literature reshuffles the mind. Tough trigonometry problems provide puzzles for the brain. Yet there is no better challenge than writing code that teaches a machine to do exactly what you want.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)
PG studied some Latin both before and during college and enjoyed it. He thinks the experience made him more deft with English. If science manages to reanimate a very old Roman, PG is prepared.
In ages past, PG also wrote a computer program – for divorce lawyers. He called it Splitsville. It sold well among those in its small target market.
PG has to admit he liked the Splitsville experience more than Latin. The exercise of writing the program increased his fluency in the language spoken and written by divorce lawyers and the syntax and structure of their legal docouments.
However, the arcane document assembly language/system in which Splitsville was written has long since disappeared, which raises another issue.
The fundamental manner of structuring knowledge and breaking it down into a form perceptible to a computer is a skill that lurks somewhere in PG’s shrinking brain, but he would have to learn another computer language to write a program for divorce lawyers today. That task is probably not as difficult as Latin, but it’s more than a Diet Coke-fueled afternoon.
When PG was in college, his computer science friends were quite skilled in Fortran. Other college friends were fluent in German.
As far as PG knows, German has not become obsolete and is still in regular use. Fortran, not so much.
PG is not opposed to students learning to program in current computer languages and skipping French, but is skeptical about the idea that Java expertise learned in high school will benefit them through very much of their occupational lives.
But he could be wrong.