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The Foreign Language Courses Colleges Should Be Teaching

By Noah Zinsmeister

I just completed my third semester at Columbia University, and it's an exciting time for me and my fellow sophomores. We've made it through finals, many of us are have decided on a major, and we are all looking forward to winter break. As I think back on the past few months, I can't help but to return to one thought: I have put hundreds of hours into a foreign language that my college -- like nearly all of its peers -- insists on as a graduation requirement. From the Pacific coast to the Big Ten to the Ivy League, millions of American undergraduates labor through mandatory French, Farsi, and Mandarin classes. Sadly, most of what they absorb withers from lack of use within a year or two.

I satisfied Columbia's two-year load with a pair of beginner and one accelerated course in Spanish, and though I enjoyed aspects of my foreign language instruction, I would not have voluntarily devoted one-tenth of my college career to a skill which I expect to use rarely, if at all, after graduation. Don't get me wrong, I think it is extremely valuable to learn different languages. In fact, there are a host of international dialects that would be enormously useful to me and which I would have loved to study in fulfillment of Columbia's requirement. But I'm not allowed.

As best I can tell from my research, no college currently allows its students to satisfy language requirements in the way I have in mind, and both students and the economy are being hurt as a result. My proposal? In addition to Spanish, Farsi, German, and Russian, colleges should let students study Javascript, Ruby, Python, and C.

Computer programming languages like the ones I just mentioned are similar to spoken dialects in that both facilitate and universalize communication. Programming languages and natural languages unite people across boundaries and enable individuals to exchange ideas and knowledge. They even share functional characteristics: imperatives (you must), conditional phrases (if x then y), and punctuation ( ; ] { ' ).

The two types of languages also differ greatly. While natural languages are constantly evolving (the Oxford English Dictionary added 196 words in its most recent quarterly update), programming languages tend to be more settled. Updates do occur, lexicon does change (HTML5 is succeeding HTML4 as the standard for Web-based content presentation), but by and large every computer language has a finite vocabulary and a precisely enumerable set of syntactical rules. Natural languages can never be truly mastered, whereas programming languages can be fully comprehended.

This last aspect is important. Even after earnest study of Spanish for several full semesters, I will never be fluent or even business-proficient without a serious immersion experience in a Spanish-speaking country. For students trying to make the best of their expensive college experience, this can be an onerous burden. Based on Columbia's tuition for the 2013-2014 school year, four language classes cost almost $19,000, never mind the hours of studying and memorization. Add in a semester abroad and this number becomes much larger.

Now consider a system which incorporates programming languages. Javascript, to take one example, is far less expensive to learn than most spoken languages: no plane tickets necessary. It also isn't limited to a certain subset of people or a particular region. Javascript and other such languages are universal by their very nature. After all, who uses computers? Americans, Brazilians, Chinese people, Indians, Italians, and Spaniards, and the list goes on. Computer code is the truest world language there is.

Moreover, at this very moment, there is an incredible need for well-designed software, and labor statistics show that jobs requiring computer-language competence will only continue to balloon in the future. Yet the United States' education system is not even coming close to meeting this need. The result is that Microsoft, Intel, IBM, and others in the tech industry are desperately dependent upon skilled programmers from abroad, which is a problem when H-1B visa bottlenecks regularly hold up projects. "Our policy is literally to hire as many talented engineers as we can find," explains Mark Zuckerberg. "The whole limit in the system is that there just aren't enough people who are trained and have these skills today."

Admittedly, not everyone who learns a computer language will become a computer science major or work in the technology sector. I'm one example; the languages I've taught myself will never be my main work. Yet they have allowed me to build websites and design products I use for my primary interests in economics and American culture.

If students are allowed to fulfill language requirements by mastering computer code, some portion will get hooked and help overcome today's damaging shortage of trained programmers and developers. The others will have the opportunity to gain a set of practical tools they are likely to find highly useful, whether they become restaurateurs building an online presence or doctors managing their medical reimbursements.

"Everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer," said the late Steve Jobs, "because it teaches you how to think." Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, adds that computer science is "a skill that you can apply in life in general, whether you end up in computer science or not."

In 2012, 42 students graduated from Columbia with a computer science major. They comprised less than 3 percent of the graduating class. That's slightly better than the national average of 2 percent, but it's still far too low. Worse, only smatterings of the students who majored in anything else left campus with even a basic handle on the logic and lingo of systems that power business innovation and global commerce.

When will American universities move away from their outdated notions of language and allow students to fulfill the mind-broadening requirements of college by learning not just the dialects of countries and regions, but the languages which are changing the world?

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Noah Zinsmeister is majoring in Economics-Mathematics and concentrating in American Studies at Columbia University. He regularly tinkers with code on his blog, photography portfolio, and book website, all of which can be found through NoahZinsmeister.com.

(AP Photo)

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