Mastering a foreign language

In need of a laugh the other day, I picked up Dave Barry's newest book from the Mitchell Public Library. His 8,167th book (yes, yes, I'm exaggerating; it's actually only his 4,568th), "Best. State. Ever: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland" is rea...


In need of a laugh the other day, I picked up Dave Barry's newest book from the Mitchell Public Library. His 8,167th book (yes, yes, I'm exaggerating; it's actually only his 4,568th), "Best. State. Ever: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland" is really a short and funny enumeration of all the odd things that happen in Florida. These are the things that make Florida strange, that put it, unrivalled, at the top of the heap for oddest state in the Union.

Kitschy tourist traps, bizarre criminal behavior, electoral pandemonia, cultural abysses and sinkholes of immorality that put Las Vegas and New Orleans to shame all receive their moment in Dave Barry's comic spotlight. I had never given much thought to the peculiarities of the Sunshine State, but since reading the book just three weeks ago - and keep in mind that it was published just last month - additional evidence supporting Barry's thesis of his homeland's strangeness seems to jump to the fore on a daily basis.

Here's one: In 2016, the Florida state legislature almost enacted a law that would have defined a computer language as a foreign language for purposes of high school curriculum.

"Sprechen sie Fortran?"

While I don't pretend to understand the philological underpinnings and criteria for human languages or the possibility that JavaScript might meet said muster in a purely intellectual sense, there seems something just patently wrong about trying to define a computer 'language' as being philosophically equivalent to a human language. And how can it be, in any case, that a state essentially awash in bilingualism would find it necessary or even valuable to define a non-human language as a foreign language? Can it really be that hard in Florida to pick up a little Espanol? And if a computer language can be so redefined, why not mathematics as well, what Galileo referred to as "the language in which God has written the universe?"


Something tells me there is more to this legislation than just a philosophical discussion. While I completely understand and agree with the desire to train more students in STEM and computer coding curriculum (we are desperately short of people trained in computer coding in America), I don't see it as an argument for defining out of existence some of the classical elements of a Western curriculum, elements such as the mastery of a foreign language. It remains true, nevertheless, that teaching foreign language in America has always been a very steep, uphill climb. Many, in fact most, areas of the world teach languages as a standard part of the instructional program, infusing it into the earliest grades. America lags woefully behind Europe and Asia in this regard. (As I say this, please keep in mind that I am an unrepentant believer in American exceptionalism, but one must still give the devil his due.)

Over the years, in fact, the Mitchell School District has worked hard to strengthen its world language program. We've occasionally added Spanish units at the elementary schools, offered a quarter-long exploration in Spanish at sixth grade, delivered Spanish I for basically all students at the eighth grade, and thereby expanded our high school offerings up to and including Spanish V, an AP course.

The results of this have not been overwhelming but they have been very positive, nevertheless. We do not send forth all of our graduates with even a workable mastery of at least one foreign language, as they manage to do pretty well in Europe, but the number of our students pursuing Spanish straight through the high school years has definitely grown. Enrollments in Spanish III and IV have tripled or quadrupled, depending on the year. An average of 16 students take AP Spanish V and no comparison to the past can be made on that as we simply didn't offer Spanish V prior to the recent enhancements. The Spanish teachers at MHS have added an International Club which meets at least once per month to celebrate world cultures. Our department chair, Dr. Teri Morgan, holds a doctorate and regularly travels to Spanish-speaking countries to sharpen her fluencies. She and other teachers also take students to such countries (this summer: Argentina) as a way of bolstering their linguistic skills and impressing upon students, in a way nothing else can really match, with the worth and practicality of such mastery.

Ultimately, mastering a human language and a computer language are both important educational undertakings in the 21st Century. There is no reason to pit the two against one another like some rock python vs. monster alligator duel in a backwater tourist trap on the outskirts of the Everglades.

Yes, I made that one up. They don't actually do such things in Florida. Well, not yet.

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