Language For Learning Objects

23 May 2003

If I want to teach people object-orientation, which language should I use?

For the last couple of years the first choice language for learning about objects has been Java. There's many good reasons to use Java.

  • It's widely known
  • It uses a C based syntax which is becoming the dominant style.
  • Free, high quality development environments are widely available
  • Knowledge of Java helps in getting a job

For these reasons, I'd certainly not discourage the use of Java (Although I would point out that C# has most of these attributes too and would thus make a viable alternative.) However I wouldn't leave it just with Java. Java/C#/C++ show a certain style of OO programming, and if you're going to introduce OO to people I think it's good to show an alternative.

The alternatives I'd consider are Ruby and Python. Both are dynamically typed languages, and I think it's useful to have experiences in both static and dynamic typing. Both languages are also very useful - there's many a task that's easy to automate with a quick script and I think every developer should have at least one scripting language up their sleeve.

It's not such a big deal as which one of the two you should pick. Personally I'd go for Ruby. Although Python is more widely used (and available), Ruby's more pure in its OO (useful if that's what you're learning) and for me feels significantly cleaner. Also Ruby has blocks: the ability to easily create lumps of code as objects. Blocks are a powerful programming tool that teaches a number of ideas about code structuring that's hard to grasp otherwise - and provides an entry point for functional languages.

Many people might ask "what about Smalltalk?" I can sympathize with that since Smalltalk is still my favorite programming experience. But the advantage of a scripting language is that it's something that a professional programmer will use regularly, while even a Smalltalk-lover like me hasn't cranked up an image in years.

All this raises another question - should you use a programming language to teach OO. An alternative would be to discuss the principles, perhaps illustrating with UML. I strongly believe you should use a language primarily so that people can do things with it. For me software design is much like mathematics. While you can get a shallow appreciation by reading or listening you only really understand it by doing. So to really understand OO you really have to build something - and be encouraged to try it different ways in the spirit of PragDave's Katas.