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What Language Should I Learn? Three Answers

A friend of mine, who works in IT but is not a developer, asked me a question during lunch today.

"I want to learn to program. What language should I learn first?"

This is a common question, one I have answered before. But, because I've blogged a lot recently, I've decided to write it up and post here.

I told him I have three answers.

The first is somewhat sarcastic. "I'm going to Europe. What language should I learn?" There just is not enough information to really answer that question, because many languages are very context-specific. If you're hoping to get into programming apps for the iPhone, your best choice is Objective C. If you want to code for Arduino microcontrollers, you'll want to start with the Arduino IDE and it's very C-like language. And, of course, there's JavaScript, your only choice on web browsers.

Where you want to go determines what you should learn.

But there's more to it than that.

There's a thing called the Church-Turing Theory, which states that any real-world calculation can be computed. Turing postulated using a Turing Machine, while Church referenced the Lambda calculus.

We get to a concept called Turing Completeness. A thing that can be computed in one Turing-Complete machine can be simulated in another Turing-Complete machine. The first real use of this was the creation of compilers, of higher-level languages that developers can use which compile to machine code that the hardware itself can run. What it means, for those learning, is that it doesn't really matter what language you learn, that anything one language does can be done by another language.

So the second answer is, Alan Turing would tell you it just doesn't matter which language you choose, that what you do and learn in one language can be simulated or applied in another language. So it doesn't really matter which you choose.

When Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror coined Atwood's Law -- any application that can be written in JavaScript, will eventually be written in JavaScript -- he didn't know the half of it. He knew that graphical applications were starting to be done within web browsers, like Gmail, He didn't know that web server applications and even command-line applications could be written in JavaScript via Node.js. He didn't know that a framework for creating cross-platform mobile applications using web technologies including JavaScript called Cordova would come along. He didn't know that Microsoft would allow developers to create Windows applications using HTML and JavaScript. He didn't know that Open Source microcontrollers such as Arduino would be developed, and frameworks such as Johnny Five would come to allow you to develop Internet of Things projects and even robots with Javascript. It might be a bit more complex to set it up to do these things with JavaScript, but they are possible.

Plus, if your code plans are more functional and computer-theoretical, you'd be glad to know that JavaScript is a Lisp.

If you want to code Objective-C, you need a Mac and the Apple development tools. If you want to code C#, you'll need to install Visual Studio tools from Microsoft (or Mono on Linux). If you want to code JavaScript, you'll need a text editor (and one comes with your computer, I promise) and a web browser (and one comes with your computer, I promise), plus there are places like CodeBin where you can enter your code into the browser itself .

If you're going to be writing an operating system, device drivers, you will want something that compiles to native machine code. If you're looking to get into a specific project, you'll want to know the language of that project. But the corners of the development landscape where JavaScript is the wrong choice are small and shrinking. So, the third answer is, it might as well be JavaScript.

This rubs me a bit wrong. I've set my rep as a Perl Monger, and I always feel like that's where you should start. But while my heart feels that, my mind argues the above, that the greater forces of modern computing are pushing to give JavaScript a front-row seat in the language arena.

But I'm willing to be wrong, and if I am, I want to know. Where am I wrong? What would you tell someone wanting to learn to program?