Is Java a World Language?

Most high schools require that students take two to three years of a world language for the purposes of expanding their cultural and communications skills, and being competitive when applying to universities. But what constitutes a world language? Must it be a spoken language, or can it be something else, say, American Sign Language, or a computer programming language? Who decides what counts?

As schools work to evolve curriculum and employ technology in ever more meaningful ways, I mulled over my own experiences with world language courses and the impact they’ve had in my life. Having been raised in San Antonio, it would have been prudent for me to take Spanish -- more than 60% of my hometown was Hispanic, and I could have practiced it constantly -- but my mother signed me up for French, viewing the language of the United Nations as the more international of my two options. L'horloge de l'église son. Din don din. I still recall those words from my French children's reader used in Madame Bagge's fifth grade class. Throughout high school, I continued with French off and on, and thank goodness I did because in 1985, during my freshman year at the University of Texas, only four languages were accepted for entry into my math degree program -- and Spanish wasn't one of them. French, German, Russian, and Japanese were the "in" languages at that time. But that would change.

What world languages are "in" depends on the decade. During the early nineties, when graduation criteria were strengthened, new world language requirements (and science, too) were implemented across the nation. Many schools simply didn't have the staff to comply. That's when solutions including TI-IN Network, a tele-education provider, stepped in. Our team of teachers instructed on-air daily, via satellite, to locales from rural Texas to the Florida Panhandle to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I taught Physics, but I worked alongside teachers of Spanish, German, French, Latin, Japanese, and interestingly, American Sign Language. (ASL often confounded the television control room with directors struggling to check sound levels on a broadcast with no audio.) Demand and the assurance that a language would bear credit in a student's local school district determined which languages TI-IN offered. And as evidenced by the ASL example, the language choices weren't all spoken.

These days, we see an expanded set of language offerings, including exotic choices from Hebrew to Mandarin to Arabic, offered formally in schools and online. Informal providers, such as Rosetta Stone, have options including Irish and Swahili, as does DuoLingo. The latter also weirdly includes Klingon in its language courses; acquire proficiency in this (not-of-this) world language, and you'll be able to pe’vIl mu’qaDmey (curse well!). I’d guess that the all-consuming rage of Game of Thrones (who says it’s over?) will see the addition of the Dothraki language to some provider’s available course list. The full catalog of world languages is big, but access to instructional and translation tools, including Google Translate, is making it easier than ever for humanity to converse. On a daily basis, I hit the "Translate" button on Facebook posts from friends in Turkey and Israel, so that I can read and enjoy their posts -- yet I speak neither of their languages. That doesn't devalue the process of learning and appreciating another language, but it does facilitate communication and offload humans from the impracticality of learning the many languages of Earth (ostensibly arising from man's hubris in building the Tower of Babel as told in Genesis... those naughty engineers, always trying to build a taller tower).

So what, if any, world languages should high schools offer, and what should be the goal in learning them? Before you answer, consider another definition of a "world language." For nearly all of humanity's (and schools') existence, the forms of language-mediated communication were those which transpired between and among people. Speaking, singing, writing, and reading existed only in the form of human languages, and possessing these skills signified literacy. (Okay, I'll cede that dolphins, birds, dogs, apes and other animals employ their own forms of speaking and singing -- and Koko the Gorilla signs in ASL! -- but unless they're attending your local high school, that's a different topic...) Now in 2019, there's "someone else" to talk to, and that someone isn't an organic life form -- it's a machine. Human are still talking to each other, but we're also talking to machines, and our communications are mediated through computer programming, or coding, languages.  We're not talking about just a few machines, such that only a couple of computer science scholars are needed to communicate in code. Humans are losing in the human:computer ratio, with so many new Internet of Things (IoT) devices in the world that we've had to expand the addressing system to enable communication with them all. Why wouldn't we recognize the need and value of learning to communicate in computer programming languages? It's time to acknowledge the evolution in communication that's taking place: everything from Scratch to Java is a legitimate "world language" -- and high schools need to catch up and recognize them as such.

The Atlantic's recent article, Does Coding Count as a Foreign Language? (2016), examines a proposal by the Florida legislature to allow students to count computer programming languages as their world languages. The rationale is utilitarian: we need more coders in this country and allowing students to go this route will fulfill an economic need. The reaction (as you might predict) has been resoundingly negative, mostly emphasizing the impending death of the Humanities at the hands of the evil STEM automatons, and the failure of those dumb legislators to understand that "real languages" are beautifully complex organisms possessing thousands of words for expressing abstract thoughts, while programming languages have only a vocabulary of 100 words and are really just cold math equations disguised as words. But I'll argue that both the communication and creativity that programming languages facilitate is every bit as important as traditional human languages. What other communications medium has consumed our attention more powerfully than the apps running on our mobile phones and laptops, and how were those apps created? How does something comprised of vocabulary, syntax, and punctuation, that combines parts into wholes to produce richer meaning and fully engage humanity (as we know it does) not qualify as a language? 

Don't our students deserve more flexibility, not less, as they work through their already standards-heavy, American high schools and plan for their futures? Many will choose a traditional world language from the currently available slate of what's considered "in," with a few embracing that language and gaining some actual ability in it (I did!). But most will tick the box for "world language" on their list of graduation requirements and be done with it. So why not offer them an alternative and add computer programming languages to the list of authorized world languages required for graduation?

When Ari, one of my former AP Computer Science A students, wrote her Sadie's "ask" poster in Java to Matthiew, he understood the language in which it was written -- and valued their shared ability to communicate in a language other than English. It exemplifies the case that a computer programming language can represent something more than cold hard code. Like other world languages, Java is beautiful in the hands of a skilled communicator who can use it to create some new that makes meaning... whether it's an app or an invitation to a high school dance. 

(photo credit: Jason Bello)