Multilingual Programming

April 30th, 2008  |  Published in code, column, dynamic languages, integration, languages, productivity  |  3 Comments  |  Bookmark on

Multilingual programming is one of my all-time favorite topics, and I feel very strongly that software developers should be adept at multiple programming languages. Developers need to be able to apply whatever language in their arsenal best suits the problem at hand, and perhaps even quickly learn a new language if what they already know doesn’t fit.

Too many developers seem to think that familiarity with one general-purpose language is good enough, but it isn’t. Knowing one language forces you to try to bend or change problems to fit whatever that language happens to be. That’s like trying to solve a problem by choosing a data structure or algorithm to use without ever considering the nature or details of the problem.

One of my favorite quotes on this topic is from Steve Yegge:

…an “X programmer”, for any value of X, is a weak player. You have to cross-train to be a decent athlete these days. Programmers need to be fluent in multiple languages with fundamentally different “character” before they can make truly informed design decisions.

Yes indeed.

Too many developers also come up with weak excuses for not learning new programming languages, most of them being just different ways of saying, “But it’s different from the language I already know!” Don’t whine about the differences — instead, learn to appreciate them and take advantage of them.

I’ve hinted at the fact that I like this topic in previous issues of my Internet Computing column when I covered the usefulness and applicability of languages such as JavaScript and E4X, Ruby (twice), and Erlang (also twice) for middleware and integration projects. My latest column, entitled “Multilingual Programming” (PDF), attempts to provide a few reasons why knowing and being able to apply multiple languages can be highly beneficial. As always, I welcome comments and feedback.

[Update: if you prefer not to read PDF, this column is now also available online in HTML.]


  1. Nick says:

    May 2nd, 2008 at 12:32 pm (#)

    As my gut-feeling reaction is to stick to one serious language (as in “C++ v TurboPascal” or “Java v scripting”, although I recognize Java hardly can be characterized as a serious language – rather a platform rich in standard APIs and frameworks) I am very interesting in reasoning behind the alternative point of view.

    I would say that instead of spending a lot of time on a conceptually different language it could be more beneficial to study, say, distributed algorithms or software/system architecture principles or your business domain. There is so much knowledge in this world that learning how to code the same thing in, roughly speaking, one more syntax seems like a waste of time. Even paying real attention to what is going on in the cloud computing can easily consume most of one’s spare time.

    From a real life perspective, it takes years or working on nontrivial software to master a language. For example, some people still manage to have only a vague idea of util.concurent – and this is just a small enough (and well explained in the literature) part of Java. How realistic is it to expect that the majority of developers will be able to master multiple languages concurrently? And who wants to maintain a code base written in widely different languages? Which most likely means multiple IDEs, unit testing frameworks, build systems (hey, not everyone is using even Maven yet), innumerable frameworks etc. And most of the interpreted languages among those are not even likely to run in the same VM. Not to mention the number of jobs asking for non-C++/Java skills.

    Curiously enough, this argumentation is hardly ever mentioned. Authors tend to assume that developers are lazy or have nothing else to learn.

    Personally, I am planning to look at Scala and probably Erlang but even judging from the number of books on those it’s clear to me that they represent merely a niche market. Frankly, I wish they had not cut as much from C++ to “invent” Java. If we had operator overloading/real templates/STL in Java I say we would be able to use quasi-functional designs without going for one more language.

    I am sorry if it sounds like rant, it’s just quite a personal thing for me :)

  2. steve says:

    May 3rd, 2008 at 12:45 am (#)

    Nick: rather than responding here, I responded in a new posting.

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    May 8th, 2008 at 10:10 pm (#)

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