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Illiterate in Multiple Languages

Optimus_Maximus_layout_02So I’ve mentioned before that I’m taking a class on the meaning of literacy, writing and publishing in a digital world (conveniently called “Digital Writing” because why not?). We were discussing a few articles in class this week that basically ask the question, why don’t writers (and for the sake of this conversation, we’ll define writers as English majors) write code. This created kind of a side conversation that I’ve been kicking around in my head and I’m curious how other people feel about it.

It is common practice in a lot of schools to REQUIRE students to take a foreign language. Blah blah blah, helps build critical thinking skills blah blah makes you a better citizen of the world blah blah “What do you call someone who only speaks on language… an American.” I know that in junior high and high school I took Spanish. In college, I took Japanese. I don’t think CMU required EVERYONE to take a foreign language, but there might have been a requirement for humanities students, so that might have been why I took it (I honestly don’t remember). I know Duquesne requires all of their undergrads (regardless of major) to take a foreign language, and they’re certainly not the only school that does that. Furthermore, as a requirement to get a PhD, I had to take a foreign language again.

So according to my academic transcripts throughout my life, I currently speak Spanish, Japanese, and French. Of course, I actually don’t speak any of them. At least not anymore.

Some schools do require at least some level of computer programming. Again, at CMU, I was required to take at least an into class (15-127 back then). But that wasn’t schoolwide, it depended on major, just like foreign languages.

So then the question becomes, does it make sense to allow a student to take a programming class OR a foreign language. Assuming you are going to require either of them, would it make sense to make them interchangeable. Certainly in my life knowing Perl, C, Python, Javascript and Java have come in about a billion times more useful than anything I learned in Japanese class, which is maybe on par with my current working knowledge or FORTRAN (which I also learned and have sense forgotten). I’d argue that for many (maybe even most) English majors, a good working knowledge of HTML and CSS would be far more useful than French. And I think the main things you’re hoping to foster by teaching a language (critical thinking, structures of grammar, communication and syntax, etc) are certainly understood through a class in Common Lisp as well as they would be in a class in Latin. I mean, obviously there are exceptions. If you’re going to be a linguist or translator, you’re going to need specific instruction in spoken languages. If you’re going to be a database architect, then you damn well better learn SQL. But for most people, I’m not sure it makes sense to privilege one over the other.

So I’m curious about few things: were you REQUIRED to take a foreign language at any level of your schooling (elementary through college)? What about a programming class? Which has been more useful? And would it make sense to make them interchangeable (for most students)?

46 comments for “Illiterate in Multiple Languages

  1. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:15 pm

    I also attended CMU and was in the English/writers program. I didn’t take a language as it wasn’t required. I did butt heads a few times with my academic advisor at first, who was very much about slotting and not the students needs ( I always knew I was going for a B.A. Instead of a B.S. so I knew what classes I needed and what I didn’t. I didn’t need to take Calculus, or two semesters of Probability & Statistics, even though he was pushing me into those classes. I actually got into academic trouble after my first semester because of this. Fortunately there was a wonderful man named Mr. English who took over as my advisor and got me into a better track that I did well in)

  2. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:20 pm

    Anyhow I took three years of French in high school, which was recommended for me since I had my eyes on CMU and other big universities. I suppose it helped in the idea of critical thinking about how words and sentences are construction and how language works. Have more computer language skills seems more practical, but is it a language with a short shelf life (the class I took was in Pascal)? A spoken language is helpful with communicating to more people, but is translation technology making this less of a need?

  3. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    Required Spanish in 7th and 8th grade. Crappy teacher so a useless endeavor though. Required French in 8th. See aforementioned teacher.
    I don’t remember if foreign language was required in high school, I think one year was. But most colleges wanted to see at least two years on the transcript, so two years of German (as I was done with French and Spanish. See aforementioned teacher), and I rather enjoyed it. My classmates got the vocabulary faster, but I picked up the grammar as it was similar to Hebrew which I’d had a bit of.
    Took a bunch of programming classes though. But not required.
    In college, the only non-departmental classes that were required (by the school) were: Intro to Computers, World History, English. Due to high school AP credits, I only had to take World History (and also got credit for -127 also).
    No foreign language required, unless you count talking to artsy people, or learning to speak Yinzer.
    I did, however, take -127 my senior year as it was in a different language than it was freshman year.

  4. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:24 pm

    (So yes, I got credit for -127 twice)

  5. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    It feels like a fairly arbitrary comparison to me. Why not ask “which is more useful, learning statistics or how to cook?” They’re both useful in different contexts. I think people get snookered by the term programming *language*. Programming languages don’t really resemble natural languages in any meaningful way. Sure, you can represent both as strings of text, but that’s about where the comparison begins and ends. To answer your question: I took a couple of years of Spanish in high school. I was never anything approaching fluent. It was definitely useful when I was traveling in Spain and Latin America. I was never required to take any formal programming training until college (though I had many years of informal self-study before that).

  6. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    It feels like a fairly arbitrary comparison to me. Why not ask “which is more useful, learning statistics or how to cook?” They’re both useful in different contexts. I think people get snookered by the term programming *language*. Programming languages don’t really resemble natural languages in any meaningful way. Sure, you can represent both as strings of text, but that’s about where the comparison begins and ends. To answer your question: I took a couple of years of Spanish in high school. I was never anything approaching fluent. It was definitely useful when I was traveling in Spain and Latin America. I was never required to take any formal programming training until college (though I had many years of informal self-study before that).

  7. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    Michael: Well, now you’re getting into the background that I skipped in favor of asking the questions (though it is hinted at in the article I linked to on the blog version of the post. The other one went more in depth, but it’s behind a paywall so I didn’t bother to link it).

    But anyway, the argument is that programming languages DO resemble spoken languages, at least in as much as the reasons that we (English majors) care about languages that aren’t english. And given that I know you, I expect you’d agree that they are correct in as much as their definitions for language (which you could argue is not the correct definition, but that’s another point).

    Programming and Human languages are both:
    1) Semantic collections of grammar
    2) used to communicate ideas
    3) Semiotic
    4) Used to create artifacts/texts that are creative.

    The authors go on to make the argument that the reason english majors SHOULD care about code is that it is actually a creative and expressive artistic act, that can be studied as such, provided you know the language so as to be able to understand it. (which of course it is, which is why we can say there is clearly well written and poorly written code)

  8. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    Michael: Well, now you’re getting into the background that I skipped in favor of asking the questions (though it is hinted at in the article I linked to on the blog version of the post. The other one went more in depth, but it’s behind a paywall so I didn’t bother to link it).

    But anyway, the argument is that programming languages DO resemble spoken languages, at least in as much as the reasons that we (English majors) care about languages that aren’t english. And given that I know you, I expect you’d agree that they are correct in as much as their definitions for language (which you could argue is not the correct definition, but that’s another point).

    Programming and Human languages are both:
    1) Semantic collections of grammar
    2) used to communicate ideas
    3) Semiotic
    4) Used to create artifacts/texts that are creative.

    The authors go on to make the argument that the reason english majors SHOULD care about code is that it is actually a creative and expressive artistic act, that can be studied as such, provided you know the language so as to be able to understand it. (which of course it is, which is why we can say there is clearly well written and poorly written code)

  9. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:45 pm

    Okay, but I could say the same for painting or photography or architecture. I’m not saying there aren’t relevant or fruitful comparisons to make; I’m just not so sure they are so close as to justify substitution.

  10. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:45 pm

    Okay, but I could say the same for painting or photography or architecture. I’m not saying there aren’t relevant or fruitful comparisons to make; I’m just not so sure they are so close as to justify substitution.

  11. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:45 pm

    I actually DO say the same for painting and photography and architecture…. a lot of english scholars do.

  12. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:45 pm

    I actually DO say the same for painting and photography and architecture…. a lot of english scholars do.

  13. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    So… what do you exclude? I mean, if I’m allowed to substitute Intro to Java for my French requirement, can I substitute anything I want? Would you draw the line anywhere?

  14. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    So… what do you exclude? I mean, if I’m allowed to substitute Intro to Java for my French requirement, can I substitute anything I want? Would you draw the line anywhere?

  15. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:51 pm

    well, that really comes back to what I was saying as to the purpose of the requirement. Assuming there is a requirement. I’d argue that for someone studying Literature and/or Culture(which I am specifically saying, because naming the major English is kind of misleading) what you really want is to give them the tools to engage in critical knowledge of symbols. French is a good way to do that. But so is Java. And frankly, so is Art History. *I* think that the main reason we say French (or some other language) is historic.

    But that’s just for English majors. Why are we requiring mandatory language instruction in general (say at a High School level). We certainly don’t expect lifelong fluency (or if we do, then we have been failing as an educational system for generations). Is Spanish (or French or Japanese or whatever) really a more useful skill to the average American citizen than Java? I’d honestly say either of them is less useful than cooking.

  16. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:51 pm

    well, that really comes back to what I was saying as to the purpose of the requirement. Assuming there is a requirement. I’d argue that for someone studying Literature and/or Culture(which I am specifically saying, because naming the major English is kind of misleading) what you really want is to give them the tools to engage in critical knowledge of symbols. French is a good way to do that. But so is Java. And frankly, so is Art History. *I* think that the main reason we say French (or some other language) is historic.

    But that’s just for English majors. Why are we requiring mandatory language instruction in general (say at a High School level). We certainly don’t expect lifelong fluency (or if we do, then we have been failing as an educational system for generations). Is Spanish (or French or Japanese or whatever) really a more useful skill to the average American citizen than Java? I’d honestly say either of them is less useful than cooking.

  17. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:54 pm

    I guess I naively assumed all we were trying to do was give people the tools to find the biblioteca if they happened to drive to Tijuana for the weekend 😉 I certainly wasn’t reading Cervantes or doing cultural analysis in my high school Spanish class…

  18. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:54 pm

    I guess I naively assumed all we were trying to do was give people the tools to find the biblioteca if they happened to drive to Tijuana for the weekend 😉 I certainly wasn’t reading Cervantes or doing cultural analysis in my high school Spanish class…

  19. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:55 pm

    But yeah, I would think virtually any intellectual domain of any depth can be a rich field for creativity or analysis.

  20. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:55 pm

    But yeah, I would think virtually any intellectual domain of any depth can be a rich field for creativity or analysis.

  21. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:58 pm

    Here’s a famous essay: Hackers and Painters. http://www.paulgraham.com/hp.html. And here’s a hilarious takedown of that essay: http://www.idlewords.com/2005/04/dabblers_and_blowhards.htm

  22. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 7:58 pm

    Here’s a famous essay: Hackers and Painters. http://www.paulgraham.com/hp.html. And here’s a hilarious takedown of that essay: http://www.idlewords.com/2005/04/dabblers_and_blowhards.htm

  23. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 8:16 pm

    Well that’s sort of my point. I wasn’t doing any cultural analysis in my Spanish or Japanese classes either. My final for French was to translate an academic journal article on the influence of Mickey Mouse on French comics but for the most part I didn’t do any in that class either.

    So really, the usefulness of those classes was that in theory it helped me be better at abstractly identifying arbitrary symbols and graphemes (read: letters) and decoding concrete meaning from them and a class on learning Java would do that just as well… Possibly better.

  24. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 11:33 pm

    Well, I took Spanish in HS, and it was part of the requirement to get into Berkeley. However, once I got there (in Letters & Science), there was no requirement to take more. As for requiring a programming class, it might be useful, like all those years of Spanish MIGHT help me talk to somebody who doesn’t know English, but it barely helps. Without practice, programming like any other skill will atrophy.

  25. avatar
    April 9, 2015 at 11:58 pm

    Joe: agreed. honestly, I think far more useful than a generic true programming class (for non programmers) in (any language from java to lisp to ruby) would be one in HTML/CSS. That’s something that I think more people are likely to use on a daily basis after the class ends.

  26. avatar
    April 10, 2015 at 8:30 am

    Two years of a second language were required in my high school and two semesters in college when I was a Communications major. Zero computer programming was required for me ever. Took Spanish as my language both times so I effectively took three years of Spanish and can’t really hold a whole conversation.

    Hablo espanol un poco.

    I learned a limited amount of html via MySpace and Wikipedia (designing my home page and editing articles respectively).

    My opinion is I think both should be required in high school and college and not interchangeable. I feel that the spoken language allows for a broader cultural appreciation, programming for a better understanding of an ubiquitous technology, and both for a wider, transferable employment skill set.

    Even if someone focuses on only one due to their major and career interests, at least a small amount of study in the other can only be beneficial. I think learning none of either would be a mistake.

  27. avatar
    April 10, 2015 at 9:08 am

    Hmm. Took Spanish in junior high; a language was required. Used it fro my dissertation (a couple of the few surviving medieval St. George plays are in Spanish), and use it again now that I’m back home, though just in bits. My conversations are always in English. But NM is a bilingual state, and I can read all the signs in Spanish. Took French and Anglo-Saxon as undergraduate because of becoming a medievalist. Still can read both. Oh, too German too in there someplace and used it for my dissertation, see St. George plays as above. Oh, and the French for the diss, on account of the medieval Catalan, sort of a French and Spanish mix. Took Latin as a grad student. Can still read it. Learned Irish as a grad student just so I could read it. Still do. Never took computer languages but learned enough HTML to change the automatic settings on the blog templates. Still use it. Hmm. So what do I think. Well, I think that the human languages are useful not jus for reading and talking, but for history and thinking about how languages work. I think being able to code is useful but for different reasons. I think I’m some sort of outlier and not useful as an example. Now I want to learn Welsh and Russian. Also it bothers me that I have no Norwegian. I dunno. Shouldn’t we all know lots of languages? All my Norwegian cousins know at least three. Or four. It’s just the way things are.

  28. avatar
    April 10, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    Anne Brannen commented on ChrisMaverick dotcom:

    Hmm. Took Spanish in junior high; a language was required. Used it fro my dissertation (a couple of the few surviving medieval St. George plays are in Spanish), and use it again now that I’m back home, though just in bits. My conversations are always in English. But NM is a bilingual state, and I can read all the signs in Spanish. Took French and Anglo-Saxon as undergraduate because of becoming a medievalist. Still can read both. Oh, too German too in there someplace and used it for my dissertation, see St. George plays as above. Oh, and the French for the diss, on account of the medieval Catalan, sort of a French and Spanish mix. Took Latin as a grad student. Can still read it. Learned Irish as a grad student just so I could read it. Still do. Never took computer languages but learned enough HTML to change the automatic settings on the blog templates. Still use it. Hmm. So what do I think. Well, I think that the human languages are useful not jus for reading and talking, but for history and thinking about how languages work. I think being able to code is useful but for different reasons. I think I’m some sort of outlier and not useful as an example. Now I want to learn Welsh and Russian. Also it bothers me that I have no Norwegian. I dunno. Shouldn’t we all know lots of languages? All my Norwegian cousins know at least three. Or four. It’s just the way things are.

  29. avatar
    April 11, 2015 at 12:50 am

    Took one year of Spanish I high school and one year of Latin. In college, took 3 classes in the modern languages department in college, which were required, but instead of a language my classes were in language acquisition studies. Nothing in grad school. in high school I also studied pascal and C, required. In college, at CMU, we all had to take an introductory class in computing. Most useful thing I ever took. I took HTML I and II as a staff member while working at CMU, maybe 1995 ish. Use Visual Basic, AppleScript, basic HTML regularly for work over the past two decades. (Not so much AppleScript anymore).

  30. avatar
    April 11, 2015 at 1:00 am

    my thoughts are, after living in Europe for over ten years, we should focus on second language acquisition at a much younger age. Foreign language requirements should start in elementary school. Programming, computing or HTML/CSS in middle school. I work for the DoD now and it’s embarrassing how incompetent people are at what I would consider basic skills. Using Excel, even knowing what a spreadsheet DOES, is beyond them…and these people aren’t older than me. Ok, well, some of them are. But really, I mean most of them can’t even make a PDF file with a text layer. Or add metadata to an image. Or even KNOW you can add alt text. This shit is basic. For fuck’s sake, I got two degrees in poetry and can still manage to make a macro.

  31. avatar
    April 11, 2015 at 1:06 am

    My favorite language story….at a gas station diner (these places are super nice with things like ruccola salat and poached salmon, wines, cheese plates – just so you know it’s not like a gas station food in Texas) in Belgium, I sat next to a group of older couples, mostly Nederlanders. The grandparents were all complaining about how their kids don’t speak enough Dutch at home. in English.

  32. avatar
    someone
    April 22, 2015 at 5:49 pm

    “And I think the main things you’re hoping to foster by teaching a language (critical thinking, structures of grammar, communication and syntax, etc) are certainly understood through a class in Common Lisp as well as they would be in a class in Latin”
    No, most definitely not. Critical thinking is more than grammar any syntax. Appears you never read any classic literature (in its orginal language), not to mention poetry.

    • avatar
      mav
      April 22, 2015 at 6:49 pm

      someone: Thank you for commenting. I wish you hadn’t remained anonymous, so I could address you better than that. But whatever.

      In any case, I never said critical thinking was grammar and syntax. (I also never said it was grammar ANY syntax. But I’m assuming that was a typo). I said the things you are hoping to foster by teaching a single semester or even a year of a foreign language (the most that is required of any American college as a general education requirement that I am personally aware of) is an awareness of critical thinking, structures of grammar, communication and syntax. No one is reading classic literature (and poetry is a part of literature, not a separate subject) in the original french or japanese on a single year of study. Certainly not with any real ability to appreciate it.

      As I said in the article, in theory, according to my academic transcripts, I “know” Spanish, French and Japanese, but to expect that I could critically understand any substantive text in any of those languages even a day after my final exam is ludicrous. No one reads the Tale of Genji in the original Japanese during after one year of study and very few people are reading Madame Bovary in the original French after that little.

      As for my experience with classic literature and poetry… for the record, I am an English PhD student. I literally teach a class on literature (and another class on writing and critical thinking). I also have 20 years of experience designing computer software. So yeah, I do have a tiny bit of experience with these things.

  33. avatar
    April 22, 2015 at 9:49 pm

    someone commented on ChrisMaverick dotcom:

    “And I think the main things you’re hoping to foster by teaching a language (critical thinking, structures of grammar, communication and syntax, etc) are certainly understood through a class in Common Lisp as well as they would be in a class in Latin”
    No, most definitely not. Critical thinking is more than grammar any syntax. Appears you never read any classic literature (in its orginal language), not to mention poetry.

  34. avatar
    April 22, 2015 at 6:08 pm

    Now that this thread has been resurrected, I think I object to one of the premises. I don’t thing the purpose of teaching a foreign language is to foster critical thinking, structures of grammar, or even syntax (I do think that is the purpose of linguistics courses and foreign language classes that are taught in the CONTEXT of linguistics degrees, but that is a different beast). I believe that foreign languages are taught for the purpose of giving the student the potential ability to communicate effectively when English is not a language that can be used to communicate effectively.

    If those other purposes were the goal of teaching foreign languages, foreign language teaching would be done very differently, in my opinion and experience (based on having gotten a Bachelors in Linguistics). Because I disagree with that premise, I believe that substituting a coding language does not fulfill the purpose of foreign language requirements.

    Now, to be clear, I feel that requiring a foreign language is, in general, an outdated way that colleges/universities try to make their students seem more well rounded. I believe that requirement should be broadened in the modern world where employers want well rounded employees, but “fluent in a foreign language” is just one of many acceptable ways for an employee to be well rounded. This is especially true of humanities majors where foreign languages are often required, but rounding out in sciences / tech would better impress potential employers.

    • avatar
      mav
      April 22, 2015 at 7:07 pm

      Strauss: See, I think that’s complicated. I think there’s two questions at hand. One is “Why should I people learn a foreign language?” and “Why do we require it?” For the former question, sure, I agree with your first paragraph. That would be great. Being more literate and more communicative are wonderful goals, and ones that the US is lagging behind many other countries in. So yes, that’s a good reason to learn a foreign language. But that’s not why we force people to do it.

      Which takes us to the latter question which you really get to in the third paragraph. The idea that you are fluent in a foreign language after a single semester, or even one year of study is ridiculous. Everyone knows that. No one expects it. Colleges do it for the very reason you say. “It makes for more well-rounded students” and the rationalization is usually exactly what I said “this fosters critical thinking.” In fact, when i started at Duquesne, I listened to a dean toting how proud he was that the school still forces that on all undergrads for exactly that reason. And I think there’s some logic to it. But I also think that “someone” inadvertently pointed to the truth when they were disputing me, and that’s what I was getting at. LOTS of things foster critical thinking. That’s the basis for the First Year Writing class that I teach (in English) and it’s the rationalization that CMU uses for forcing many humanities majors to take 15-127. And that’s a good thing. No one expects that because you took a single programming class taught in Genie Pascal in 1994 that you should be able to write anything approaching a competent piece of software in 2015. They don’t expect that you can do much more than write a bubble sort even at the end of just that one class. And as I said to “someone” no one expect that I can read Tale of Genji or even carry on a conversation beyond, “hello, my name is…” “goodbye,” “thank you,” and “where is the library/drugstore/bathroom?” The final one is a hilarious thing to even teach, because even though I can ask “doko ni basurūmu ga aru,” “où se trouvent les toilettes” and “¿dónde está el baño?” I don’t actually understand any of those languages enough to follow the answer I might get back.

      The idea is that by having GenEd requirements outside of your major, you develop the ability to foster skills beyond the microcosm of whatever you’re an expert in and that makes you better at thinking in general. And I maintain that learning Latin is a good way to do that (assuming you’re not a latin major). So is learning Java (assuming you’re not a CS major) and taking a poetry class (assuming you’re not an English major).

  35. avatar
    April 22, 2015 at 10:49 pm

    someone: Thank you for commenting. I wish you hadn’t remained anonymous, so I could address you better than that. But whatever.

    In any case, I never said critical thinking was grammar and syntax. (I also never said it was grammar ANY syntax. But I’m assuming that was a typo). I said the things you are hoping to foster by teaching a single semester or even a year of a foreign language (the most that is required of any American college as a general education requirement that I am personally aware of) is an awareness of critical thinking, structures of grammar, communication and syntax. No one is reading classic literature (and poetry is a part of literature, not a separate subject) in the original french or japanese on a single year of study. Certainly not with any real ability to appreciate it.

    As I said in the article, in theory, according to my academic transcripts, I “know” Spanish, French and Japanese, but to expect that I could critically understand any substantive text in any of those languages even a day after my final exam is ludicrous. No one reads the Tale of Genji in the original Japanese during after one year of study and very few people are reading Madame Bovary in the original French after that little.

    As for my experience with classic literature and poetry… for the record, I am an English PhD student. I literally teach a class on literature (and another class on writing and critical thinking). I also have 20 years of experience designing computer software. So yeah, I do have a tiny bit of experience with these things.

  36. avatar
    April 22, 2015 at 11:07 pm

    Strauss: See, I think that’s complicated. I think there’s two questions at hand. One is “Why should I people learn a foreign language?” and “Why do we require it?” For the former question, sure, I agree with your first paragraph. That would be great. Being more literate and more communicative are wonderful goals, and ones that the US is lagging behind many other countries in. So yes, that’s a good reason to learn a foreign language. But that’s not why we force people to do it.

    Which takes us to the latter question which you really get to in the third paragraph. The idea that you are fluent in a foreign language after a single semester, or even one year of study is ridiculous. Everyone knows that. No one expects it. Colleges do it for the very reason you say. “It makes for more well-rounded students” and the rationalization is usually exactly what I said “this fosters critical thinking.” In fact, when i started at Duquesne, I listened to a dean toting how proud he was that the school still forces that on all undergrads for exactly that reason. And I think there’s some logic to it. But I also think that “someone” inadvertently pointed to the truth when they were disputing me, and that’s what I was getting at. LOTS of things foster critical thinking. That’s the basis for the First Year Writing class that I teach (in English) and it’s the rationalization that CMU uses for forcing many humanities majors to take 15-127. And that’s a good thing. No one expects that because you took a single programming class taught in Genie Pascal in 1994 that you should be able to write anything approaching a competent piece of software in 2015. They don’t expect that you can do much more than write a bubble sort even at the end of just that one class. And as I said to “someone” no one expect that I can read Tale of Genji or even carry on a conversation beyond, “hello, my name is…” “goodbye,” “thank you,” and “where is the library/drugstore/bathroom?” The final one is a hilarious thing to even teach, because even though I can ask “doko ni basurūmu ga aru,” “où se trouvent les toilettes” and “¿dónde está el baño?” I don’t actually understand any of those languages enough to follow the answer I might get back.

    The idea is that by having GenEd requirements outside of your major, you develop the ability to foster skills beyond the microcosm of whatever you’re an expert in and that makes you better at thinking in general. And I maintain that learning Latin is a good way to do that (assuming you’re not a latin major). So is learning Java (assuming you’re not a CS major) and taking a poetry class (assuming you’re not an English major).

  37. avatar
    April 22, 2015 at 7:34 pm

    I’m with Mike. Foreign languages have little in common with programming languages. In theory a foreign language will increase your understanding of people, customs, and philosophies of another culture. Some ideas are nearly impossible to think unless you know there’s a word for it. With a programming language, you can only converse with computers. I agree that they’re both expressive acts, but in terms of the understanding they create they couldn’t be more opposite. Art class would be a lot closer.

    That is, until the Robot Apocalypse when newly sentient robots rebel and are eventually fought to a draw in some land and form their own culture.

  38. avatar
    April 22, 2015 at 7:34 pm

    I’m with Mike. Foreign languages have little in common with programming languages. In theory a foreign language will increase your understanding of people, customs, and philosophies of another culture. Some ideas are nearly impossible to think unless you know there’s a word for it. With a programming language, you can only converse with computers. I agree that they’re both expressive acts, but in terms of the understanding they create they couldn’t be more opposite. Art class would be a lot closer.

    That is, until the Robot Apocalypse when newly sentient robots rebel and are eventually fought to a draw in some land and form their own culture.

  39. avatar
    April 22, 2015 at 8:16 pm

    Sam: It’s not about what they have in common; it’s about the goal in teaching them. Japanese and Latin have little in common either, but they both fulfill the requirement. My point is the the specific skills that we (academia) use to justify mandatory foreign language instruction are not actually unique to foreign languages. We don’t really teach an appreciation of the people, customs or philosophies of another culture in the limited amount of time that you get in LanguageX I and II. Maybe a little. But Strauss is right. Mostly we teach you to communicate. But with the level of competency you get after a year, you’re at best able to communicate with like a 5 or 6 year old. A 7 year old probably thinks you sound like an idiot. And almost no one (who doesn’t take further instruction or otherwise has a reason to practice constantly) realistically considers themselves fluent (or even literate) a few years later.

    What you do retain, is the mental practice of learning how to learn. Since the language is foreign to you, it involves training your brain to study new concepts and begin to learn outside of your comfort zone. So To use your specific example, I think Art WOULD totally be an acceptable way to do this (for someone who isn’t an art major, at least).

    It’s not that I think people SHOULDN’T be learning foreign languages. It’s more that colleges cling to them because of an outdated notion that its the “only way” (or even the best way) to teach those skills. I’d argue it’s far more useful to teach an “outside the major” skill that the student might be likely to keep up on after the fact. And the best way to do that is to have a grouping that you can choose from based on your interests. So, some business majors might end up taking Japanese, while others might end up decided to take Java. They might take intro to fiction writing, Philosophy 101 or sculpture. The most important part is that they stretch their boundaries (in a way that forces certain aspects of knowledge that the college tends to value). My suggestion is that “lets at least give them a reason to care.” Right now, that reason is the academic equivalent of “because I said so.”

    Really, my ultimate solution would be extend Michael Strauss’s paragraph 3 stance even farther. I think everyone should be required to have a minor as well as a major. And I might even have a list of minors that DON’T count for that major. Meaning if you’re a French major I wouldn’t allow Spanish, Latin or German as a minor requirement (you’re allowed to minor in it, but you’d still be required to minor in something else as well). Computer Science wouldn’t be allowed to use Robotics or Electrical Engineering. English wouldn’t be allowed to use creative writing. Etc.

  40. avatar
    April 22, 2015 at 9:08 pm

    I certainly did get taught an appreciation of those things in my Spanish and Russian classes. In Spanish 4 at CMU we had to watch Spanish movies which I still recall, and learned quite a bit about Spanish art and the history of Latin America (which, by the way, is WAY more colorful than the history of North America). And while I could never extensively philosophize in Spanish, some knowledge of the language made my connection with some Spanish speakers deeper.

    I don’t think learning to converse and “exchange ideas” with a computer is remotely similar to learning to do that with other people or Peoples.

    (Sorry about the extensive edits on the post… Facebook switched me to “return submits” at some point.)

  41. avatar
    April 22, 2015 at 9:31 pm

    Sam: sure. But that’s Spanish 4. An elective with extensive prereqs. I meant the mandatory minimum requirement. So Spanish 1.

  42. avatar
    April 22, 2015 at 11:01 pm

    We’re a little off topic (a good deal my fault), but I thought I would mention that, at CMU at least, you ARE required to get a minor as part of your CS degree, and ECE is explicitly not allowed for that minor.

  43. avatar
    April 22, 2015 at 11:12 pm

    Yeah. I know that’s the case for CS there, but it’s by no means standard. I do think it’s an excellent idea though (which is why I offered it)

  44. avatar
    April 23, 2015 at 7:42 am

    Foreign language was required in junior high and high school. I took Latin because I was a mythology nerd, but I got some decent mileage out of it. Being able to identify Latin root words is hella useful.

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