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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)?

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