May 22, 2021

Open letter regarding Michigan House Bill 4326 (computer code and "foreign" languages in high schools)

Letter to: Representative Greg VanWoerkom
Re: Michigan House Bill 4326

Dear Representative VanWoerkom,

I've worked as a professional software engineer for twenty-one years; I've gained a mastery of nearly two dozen computer programming languages over my career. In addition, I hold two degrees in linguistics, and have studied more than my fair share of "foreign" languages: I count five languages I've studied in some capacity in formal school settings during my life, and a sixth -- Polish -- I know because I grew up in a Polish-speaking household. I currently live and work in Chicago but I grew up in Michigan (Grand Rapids) and attended college in Michigan (U-M, Class of '96). My mother, who lives in Michigan, told me of a news report this week on WOOD-TV 8 regarding House Bill 4326, which would allow high school students in Michigan "to complete a computer coding class as a foreign language equivalent" (to quote from a press release about the bill).

I read the press release, and I viewed the WOOD-TV news report online, and I read HB 4326, all with great interest given my background. I understand the appeal of something like HB 4326. There is undeniably a huge and growing need for people who can write computer code. (As an aside, this is something I'm intimately familiar with; my LinkedIn account is replete with job offers and emails from technical headhunters even though I'm very comfortable in my current job as the lead engineer for my company.) I very much agree that it's critical for a great many reasons to do whatever can be done to help fill that need.

Even so, I think this bill is the wrong approach for addressing this concern. For one, it's dubious to think that computer languages are more "practical" than human languages. To lend an example from my own experience: I took a computer programming course in high school, where we learned the BASIC programming language. In my entire professional career, I never, not once, used BASIC. As an undergraduate, I took a computer programming course where we learned the Pascal programming language -- again, I have never once used Pascal in my professional career. I also took Spanish in high school, and my knowledge of Spanish today gets more use and is worlds more practical than my knowledge of BASIC or Pascal.

One could reply in response that the programming languages that are taught now in schools -- like Javascript or Python -- are far more practical and have far more staying power and one can get a job coding in one or both programming languages. And that's certainly true, to a point. Greater staying power doesn't mean that you can ride that wave for the balance of a career. You can take a class as a Java programmer, and if you're good enough you can get and keep a job for three years, or five years, or eight years -- and then the industry will have moved on. One reason why I know a great many programming languages is that I need to learn new languages, new ideas, new programming paradigms, if I want to stay relevant in my career. The years of high school are too precious to devote entirely for vocational training, especially in the ever-changing and often fickle world of computer programming.

For one, I'm glad I learned a "foreign" language in addition to a computer programming language during my high school years, which bring me to the other main objection I have to this bill: It might deprive of opportunities. Obviously, computer programming languages aren't the same as human languages -- one is a formalism to provide instructions to a computer, the other is a much richer potential palate of possibilities: asking for directions, talking to others, reading a poem, writing a love letter, translating a dying person's last words (we don't know Einstein's last words because he said them in German and the attending nurse didn't know German), in addition to the business-relevant skills of answering phone calls, writing memos, reaching out to potential clients. By substituting a computer programming language with a spoken or signed non-English language, students might lose that possibility to expand their horizons. To be fair, having mastery in a "foreign" language may not necessarily get you a job on its own, but complemented with other skills and it becomes a formidable tool on the job market.

It's the yes-and not either-or approach that I think is called for here, particularly in the critical years of high school, which is why I'm opposed to this bill. I understand that this letter must strike you as strange, given that the bill has just passed the Michigan House and that your involvement with this bill is, at least on the face of things, ended. But I admit this is the first I have heard of this bill or even of the idea espoused by the bill, and I wanted you to hear my voice on the matter. I will also make clear that despite my strong disagreement with this bill and the idea behind it, I am open to discussion on this matter and would be happy to entertain cordial dialogue on this topic.

Thank you for your time and attention.


Mitchell Szczepanczyk