Language of the Month - Five Languages In

Due to especially busy summer months, language of the month is on hiatus. Over the last few months of conducting this experiment, I've had a chance to collect my thoughts on the experiment as a whole, and I thought now would be a good time to share them!

One Month Isn't Enough

One thing I realized a few languages in is that taking a few hours a week on my own for a month is not enough time to really learn a language. The first strong indication of this was Elixir Adventures; that post came extremely late in the following month because I spent so much time working on Elixir RPG, and trying to get it right! The second indication was when I played with Smalltalk. The interesting thing about Smalltalk is that I probably persued it with more fervor than any of the other languages - I actually finished my play project fairly early! However, after posting about my project and getting feedback from real Smalltalkers, I realized that the experience had been informative, but not transformative: I learned about the awesome tooling that Smalltalk offers, but I don't think it really changed how I think about programming…which was the whole point of doing language of the month! In retrospect, I also don't think I really attained Lisp enlightenment either when I covered Racket.

Scale of Projects

I followed the metric of writing a toy project in my language of interest, along with two blog posts about the language. The problem with a single toy project, however, is that you spend most of your time on time figuring how to do things in your target language, rather than figuring out how to do them right. Ideally, I would have undertaken two or more smaller projects, but again, one month wasn't even enough time for one toy project.

Guilt-Free Play

Another reason I got into playing with a new language each month is it's supposed to be fun; however, I ended up getting burned out trying to meet my self-imposed deadlines. It's been taking up a lot of my time, and I've been neglecting other things I want to work on. Language of the month had become something of a chore, and that's no fun! R and Elm were the easiest ones and felt the least chore-like, but that comes as no surprise - I had a great and small project idea for both, I knew Elm already, and I had been using R for my Coursera.

Another aspect of my learning techinique that ties into play is how I approached learning the languages. For R and Racket, I did my best to read the entire language specification and take notes on it. I didn't finish for Racket, because it turns out that, for me, this is not a great way to learn a programming language! The minutiae of a language aren't important for an initial exposure to it; I found that the feeling I get while trying things out and making programs work, which is what I did with Elixir and Smalltalk, was a much more effective metric for whether I would feel like using the language in the future,

Going it Alone

I mentioned earlier that in order to internalize the style and idioms of a language, I would have needed to do several projects in that language. That's true, but there's a shortcut - finding a mentor: someone who would be willing to sit down with me and talk about the culture behind the language, deliver constructive criticism, and prevent me from reinventing patterns ingrained into my mind by languages more familiar to me. This was my experience when I started attending Mad Mongers meetings in Madison; it very quickly improved my skills as a Perl programmer, and as a programmer in general. I consider this one the turning points in my development as a programmer.

It is because of this that I'm extremely excited about the polyglot meetup that recently started up in Chicago, and the PLIBMTTBHGATY meeting happening in Indianapolis next month. You can just learn so much from a language's community and the people using it on the regular basis!

Moving Forward

My busy summer is wrapping up, so I'm hoping to be able to try a new language in September or October bearing these ideas in mind. However, if I start a new language on October 1st, I don't think I'll be wrapping it up on October 31st in the hopes of getting a blog post about that language out in early November; like I wrote above, my experiences made me feel that one month for a language was just not enough time! So, from now on, “language of the month” is going to become more of a “language of the whenever I'm done”! I'm going to try to seek out mentors who can introduce me to the way a “native speaker” of my target language thinks about things, and I'm going to try to write more, but smaller, projects, as time goes on. I'll only stop when I feel like the experience has really transformed the way I think about programming, or when I feel that I'm not going to get any more out of a language. However! In lieu a monthly summary on my target language, I'm going to try monthly updates on how the current language is going, sharing insights gained and accomplishments…accomplished. So even if fully digesting Idris or whatever takes me six months, you'll still see an update (roughly) once a month stating what cool things I learned.

Published on 2016-08-09