Programming an important foreign language

While we’re at school, we’re encouraged to view all fields as equal. Recruiters, however, see things a little differently.

Jovanna Tosello | Daily Trojan

The importance of computer science is hard to ignore. It’s the discipline that runs our beloved phones and laptops. It’s the study that allows us to tell hundreds of people what we did last weekend and, above all, it’s a study that nearly serves as the backbone of our culture.

It’s also the reason many humanities and social science majors might not get jobs this year — and I’m speaking as a communication major who hasn’t touched math since my junior year of high school.

USC claims to offer education for the 21st century. In many ways, it fulfills that promise, but there is always room for improvement.

In the name of diversifying our education and preparing us for  careers, the university should allow undergraduates outside of the computer science program to fulfill the language requirement with a programming language.

According to, a website sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, the fastest growing occupations for college graduates require a high level of technological competence. Computer software engineering is featured twice in the top-10 list.

Students with other interests can’t ignore this trend, as more and more jobs outside of engineering are asking for tech skills. Sure, most of us know how to create a decent document on Microsoft Word, but having a basic grasp of programming is even better. Freelance artists and writers regularly maintain their own websites; savvy marketers make their flyers email-friendly;  creative entrepreneurs use programming to tap into the application market.

What’s more, according to the USC Center for Communication Leadership and Policy, jobs are flowing from big to small companies. In start-ups, employees must dip their hands into a variety of  tasks. Having a broad range of commonly needed skills — programming among them — is just as good as being brilliant at a few specific things. For entry-level applicants, it’s often better. Even corporate employees climb the ladder more effectively when they can use a common language with the folk in information technology.

Of course, USC doesn’t just spit out employable 20-somethings. Students come here to broaden their horizons and learn how to think. Learning Spanish or Japanese isn’t just about gaining a new skill. It’s also about understanding grammar and linguistics, however grudgingly.

But who says programming languages don’t do the same things?

First, anyone who thinks that programming languages have nothing to do with grammar should open a dictionary. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, grammar is “a set of actual or presumed prescriptive notions about correct use of a language.” Any consistent language has everything to do with grammar, no matter what purpose the language serves.

It was the linguist Noam Chomsky  who developed the grammatical system that forms the backbone of modern programming. Students who take programming as a foreign language would gain a fresh perspective.

Second, programming languages have plenty of international relevance. If you were to take a trip to Paris, you’d look insane trying to ask for directions in C++, but cross-cultural collaboration happens every day in the form of software.

Programming languages are universal in a way  English isn’t. Because programming languages are new and rather specific, we don’t learn them as babies. There’s no such thing as a native speaker of C++ or Java — people from all over the world start at the same point. The country you’re from doesn’t matter, but your study of the language does. It’s a very egalitarian way to learn.

Allowing students to take programming as a foreign language isn’t about forcing anyone to do anything. It’s about looking at language in a new and modern way; it’s about expanding dialogue between the college and engineering students; it’s about giving students more options.


Maya Itah is a senior majoring in communication. Her column “From Behind the Screen” runs Thursdays.