Saturday, February 2, 2013

How to learn a new programming language

Here's some tips on learning a new programming language. They aren't listed in any specific order. Hopefully you'll gain from this at least one new tip that will help you to become proficient in the next language you learn.

  1. Build something you actually need right now. This could be either a tool you can use in your day job, or something useful you can make use of at home.

    Consider these example projects ...
    • Write a simple unit testing framework. Many new languages don't have any unit testing frameworks available when they are first introduced. This project will force you to use areas of the language like reflection and meta-programming. Once completed, it becomes useful straight away, for unit testing your future work in the language.
    • Implement a disk usage tool; it summarizes the disk usage of all directories on a disk and outputs to the console. It doesn't require overly complex algorithms but touches a lot of the basics: recursion, filesystems, command line parsing and output formatting.
    • Implement a backup/archive script which has command line switches to exclude certain file extensions. It should place the backup into a single .zip or .tar.gz file. The project will touch on the following: recursion, filesystems, command line parsing, compression libraries and regular expressions.
  2. Port an existing, well known program to the new language. Since you are porting it, you already have the application design work done. This frees up your mind to focus on the specifics of the new language. After you've finished you'll then have a good reference to which you can refer back to, when comparing the old with the new language.

  3. Find a decent book on the language and read through it all as fast as you can. The goal is not to memorize everything, but to soak up the ideas and idioms of the language. Then write some small but non-trivial project. When you get stuck, hopefully it'll trigger a memory of something from the book, and you can go back to refer to it.

    Many of the "in a Nutshell" and "Head First" series of books, both published by O'Reilly, are highly rated by readers - they are available for many popular languages (C, C++, C#, Java, Python, JavaScript, PHP).

  4. Mix action with equal parts learning (reading books/tutorials). Too much action without learning, and you get a lot of poor quality code. Too much learning without enough action, and you fail to absorb the material to a deep enough level.

  5. Study reference works on public repositories. Find a medium sized project on GitHub which is written 100% in the language. Read though the code and try to understand it. Look for projects written by the language designers or an acknowledged expert.

    As an example, with Go, the standard libraries for the language are written in Go and are open source, e.g. here is part of the strings package.  In addition, Brad Fitzpatrick and other members of the Go team have several projects on GitHub that you can read and learn from, e.g. here is a Go client for Memcache.

  6. Devote large, uninterrupted chunks of time, at least half a day, to learning the new language. Brief, half hour sessions over the course of the week aren’t really useful, because most of the time would be spent just getting back up to speed on what you previously studied.

  7. Learning a language shouldn’t just be a solitary endeavor. There are plenty of people who have made the same mistakes that you have, so asking for help is a great way to overcome problems when you get stuck. Some possible sources of help online: Language-specific IRC channels, StackOverflow, Twitter, Facebook groups, Quora, Google+, Google groups. You can also submit your finished code to these forums after you've completed a project; people more experienced with the language than you will often be able to identify areas which can be improved or simplified.

  8. Use an editor with syntax highlighting. Perennial favorites such as Vim and Emacs, plus newer editors such as Sublime Text, feature support for most if not all programming languages and are available for all major operating systems. Some languages are often associated with specific IDEs; these are a good idea when learning a new language. These are generally ...
    • Eclipse IDE for Java and Android development.
    • Xcode for Objective-C and iOS development (on Mac OSX only).
    • Visual Studio IDE for C#, C++, VB.NET, F# (on Windows only).
    All of the IDEs and editors listed above are either completely free or have an unlimited trial version available.

  9. Working on a real project with real customers and deadlines is a white hot crucible for learning a new programming language. If you really need to learn a language quickly, then consider taking on a new job which requires it. Once you've got the job, you'll have no other choice but to learn it quickly.
     
  10. Finally, a tip from The Pragmatic Programmer, Tip #8 "Invest Regularly in Your Knowledge Portfolio":
    "Learn at least one new language every year. Different languages solve the same problems in different ways. By learning several different approaches, you can help broaden your thinking and avoid getting stuck in a rut. Additionally, learning many languages is far easier now, thanks to the wealth of freely available software on the Internet." 

2 comments:

  1. I like point #3. I find it is very important to get an idea of what a language can do. You should also force yourself to try and use all the various features an idioms from the language. Failing to do this you'll just end up writing code similar to your existing style.

    Naturally you should then aggresively refactor this first code until it feels right in the new language.

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    1. Good point regarding writing code similar to your existing style. Its very easy to do this as well if you already have experience with a similar language, E.g. going from Java to C# or C# to Java, you could probably write almost identical code to the other when in fact there is some fairly big differences now. Also online tutorials which skim though all the idioms can be very useful. One that comes to mind is the excellent online tutorial for Go.

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