Language paralysis

It’s winter break which means that I have a good amount of free time on my hands. Though I’m all in favor of sitting around and doing nothing, I do get bored after a few days of that and tend to look for something to keep my mind occupied. I decided that this time I would sit down and learn a new programming language, something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. But the thing is I can’t make up my mind as to which one.

I’ve considered learning one of three languages, each of which is a powerful yet somewhat quirky and niche language. My choices are Common Lisp, Scheme or Haskell. Common Lisp and Scheme are both Lisp dialects, but with different purposes and hence a different feel. From what I’ve learned Common Lisp is a full-fledged industrial strength, general purpose programming language while Scheme has a thriving research community surrounding it and is a great test-bed for implementing programming-language related ideas. Both share Lisp’s defining characteristics such as powerful dynamism and macro facilities. Both are inherently functional languages but are also capable of playing host to other programming paradigms (Common Lisp in particular with its Common Lisp Object System).

Haskell on the other hand is quickly becoming one of the most powerful programming languages on the planet and may be coming close to threatening Lisp’s throne. It’s a purely functional programming language with an increasingly powerful and capable type-system. It’s an excellent tool for language and type-system related research thanks to great parsing facilities and it seems to me that Haskell is at the forefront of computer science research today. Haskell doesn’t have a macro system, but I’ve never heard that be an issue.

All my choices are powerful languages with strong communities, but I simply can’t make up my mind as to which one to learn. I admire all of them and can see the strengths of each, but neither one is really compelling enough for me to sit down and decide to learn it. It’s time to explore some of the reasons behind my current paralysis and see if I can figure out a solution.

Looking back on my history of learning programming languages all the ones I’ve learned to any depth have been motivated by external cause. I learned Java because it was used in my basic CS courses. I learned C++ because I used it in my software engineering class. I learned C for operating systems and digital circuits courses. I learned Python because we use it for most of our research code at school (and it’s become the language I’m most familiar with). I’ve also picked up some JavaScript because I wanted to use it to give some dynamism to my website.

Unfortunately I don’t have similar motivations to help me make my current decisions. My current research is being done in Ruby because of it’s flexible object system. I have some ideas for a side project to pursue next semester but it’s not likely to be something requiring Lisp or Haskell’s particular talents. I’m not going to be doing any research into languages or type systems until the summer at least (and maybe not until later this year). As of this moment, I have zero external motivation to pick and learn any of these languages.

The thing is I really do want to learn one (and eventually all) of these languages. I think it’s a good idea for programmers to be continually learning new languages and expanding the ways in which we can think of our problems. However, I’m coming to realize that simply sitting down and going through a tutorial isn’t enough, at least not for me. I need an actual problem that I intend to solve in the given language. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but it should be something that gives me a well-rounded view of the language and it’s capabilities (especially when the language is Lisp or Haskell).

I consider myself a language buff. But it’s one thing to say that I’m interested and read about them and another to sit down, learn them and write code in them. Right now, I’m very interested in learning about Common Lisp, Scheme and Haskell and read both blogs and papers about them. But I can’t take that interest and use it to bridge the gap to learning and using them. Motivation has always been a bit of a problem for me and I’m rather annoyed that it’s preventing me from learning what I want to.

Since I still have about two and a half weeks of vacation left I’m going to give some serious thought as to what sort of programs I want to write in the near future and how I can choose the language that is most beneficial along those lines. At this point I’m open to suggestions for Lisp/Haskell projects that would be interesting as well as hearing about how other people motivate themselves to learn languages that they aren’t actively using.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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