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A Language Worth Learning

10 min read

A language that doesn’t affect the way you think about programming is not worth knowing.

Alan J. Perlis, 19821

I found this quote when reading the excellent article by Peter Norvig about the path of learning how to program. It is right in the beginning, setting the stage for his post. This post here is independent of Peter’s post, but do check it out as well.

His article presents this quote in the context of an example. A programmer versed in BASIC might need to work on some code base written in C; if that programmer only learns C syntax, they can perform the task. By learning solely the language’s syntax, the programmer would not know how things can be done differently in C compared to BASIC; they would be programming in BASIC using C syntax, not programming in C. The author believes that this situation is not what learning a new language means; it is merely completing a task.

Suppose a language has a different syntax than one you already know but doesn’t add any new value, new constructs, or alternative to existing constraints, constructs, and functionalities. In that case, it won’t expand your ability to think about the problems you solve. The time spent learning that language would be just assigning new symbols to existing ideas, which could be postponed until required. More recently, with AI, it can even be automated by tools like Codex and Code-DaVinci.

If you spend time learning a language that introduces you to new paradigms and new ways of thinking about your program, the value of learning that language goes far beyond just completing a task in that language. It gives you a more diverse repertory of existing solutions to tap into when solving a new problem, even in languages you were already profoundly versed in, maybe even considered an expert.

I recently participated in a prime example of this exact effect. A colleague was working on our File Storage abstraction, he was tasked with optimizing a feature that would, as part of its workflow, make a copy of a file.

The existing abstractions were just this:

export interface Blob {
getContentType(): Promise<string | undefined>;
toBuffer(): Promise<Buffer>;
export interface ReadOnlyFileStorage {
read(identifier: string): Promise<Blob | null>;
export interface FileStorage extends ReadOnlyFileStorage {
save(identifier: string, data: Blob): Promise<void>;
delete(identifier: string): Promise<void>;

Copying is already perfectly possible with this; you just read the file from one place and save it to the new place; this fits perfectly with the workflow that was being added:

  1. Component A gets the Blob of a file from storage X and gives it to component B.
  2. Component B checks what to do with the Blob it received and decides to write its content into storage Y.

There is a clear general solution, read the source file and write it to the destination file. This works regardless of what you are copying, where you are copying from, and where you are copying to, which is excellent for mixing arbitrary storage systems, but here is the thing… we don’t usually use different storage systems for the same workflow.

When we are copying things, most of the time is just because something should be available under two different names, and many storage systems allow that. Some storage systems even have routines to de-duplicate files with the same content by making them point to the same place.

But on the implementation of a particular system, we already know that it can just make two references to the data, so the copy operation could be almost free. How could we make this more efficient without an actual copy operation if it is caused by an external read and save? That was the goal of the task. However, the task didn’t include how we could detect that the save operation could be a copy in those systems without breaking the interface or the abstraction; such constraints were not even mentioned anywhere. It was left to the interpretation of whoever got the task that such conditions were more important than extreme optimizations if it came to it, which was my mistake.

So my colleague spent more than a day’s worth of effort changing the interface, making it generic of the type of Blob it returns and adding an extra copy operation that can receive only the same type of Blob so each implementation could have the optimized version or delegate to the general solution if there was no optimization. The callers of the interface then had to check if the optimized path could be taken and call the appropriate method (copy or save), or they assumed that the optimization would be possible and had to be generic over the Blob type of their implementation detail.

After all that, I looked at the code and told him there was a straightforward solution that didn’t require any changes in the interfaces or call site. The possibility of a compile-time check for the optimization was not a positive addition since the implementation to be used was chosen dynamically, and although we know that it currently never mixes storage systems, that is entirely possible by changing just the configuration. This means we require a runtime check anyway, so why not make the implementations specialize themselves, without the caller even having to be aware of it.

We reverted everything back to the initial interface and made the optimization change only on the save implementation of the storage systems that could benefit from it. One of them is Google Cloud Storage (GCS), which can make a copy of a file with a single API call. This is the complete change:

export class GcsBlob implements Blob {
// Existing methods unchanged
// Added this new method to the class, not part of the interface
public async copyTo(other: File): Promise<void> {
// `this.handle` is the handle to the original file,
// which was already present in this class
await this.handle.copy(other);
export class GcsFileStorage implements FileStorage {
// Other methods unchanged
public async save(identifier: string, data: Blob): Promise<void> {
const file = this.bucket.file(identifier);
// Added this conditional, if the original Blob is from GCS,
// we just send the copy request without reading anything.
if (data instanceof GcsBlob) {
return data.copyTo(file);
// Continues to the existing general save solution by downloading
// the data and uploading it to GCS

Simple, right? Well… although the solution is short and straightforward, that doesn’t mean it is obvious.

Is my colleague not thoughtful for not seeing this? No, he is brilliant but was new to the code base, and none of the projects he worked on involved making an internal specialization like this, so he had no reference to ground his work.

Am I a genius for solving the problem in such a simple way? Hell no! I take no credit for this. I just replicated it from somewhere else. Here is the deal, I don’t code just in JS. One of the other languages I know is Go, and Go solved this problem very beautifully in their standard library, so it applies to every Go code base. In fact, Go does it in such a way that the source and the destination might even be in different systems, and either can optimize for each other.

Let’s look into that. Go has a function io.Copy that accepts any Writer and any Reader reads from the reader and writes to the writer. That is the general implementation mentioned before, implemented independently of which reader or writer is used. The brilliant part is that the writer can also implement WriterTo, allowing it to receive the reader and optimize to any specific implementation it might want. The same for the reader; it may implement ReaderFrom that receives the writer and can optimize for it.

This is entirely transparent for the caller; want to copy from a file to a gRPC stream? From a WebSocket to a raw unix socket? From an API request to an in-memory buffer? From a TCP socket to a file? You can do it all with the same function, io.Copy. If they can specialize in your use case, they will, and they do:

  • Copying from one file to another specializes to copy syscalls.
  • Copying from a TCP or Unix socket to a TCP connection specializes to splice syscalls.
  • Copying from a file to a TCP connection specialized to the sendfile syscall becoming the famous Zero-Copy network operation.

There are many other optimizations there. Nearly all the cases I mentioned before have specializations, and some have even more fine-grained optimizations. But all of that is entirely transparent for the caller.

Creating that is the work of multiple distinguished minds that collectively built Go. I just read it and copied a small piece of it. It might seem impressive at first glance if you’ve had no contact with it before, but copying others is not remarkable. It is positive to know what is out there, and when to copy it to save your and your team’s time. That is indeed a skill, but a very different skill than creating something from scratch.

The point here is that knowing a language/framework/library can help you solve problems more effectively in every language/framework/library. And if a language does not benefit you in that way, it is not worth studying. If you already know Java, Python, PHP, and Go, learning JavaScript, or even TypeScript, will, at most, teach you different a syntax for things you already know; maybe it won’t be a good use of your time. In that same scenario, learning Rust will teach you a lot about memory, what allocates or not, when to use each, and how memory works in a multithreaded system due to the borrow checker and variable lifetimes; it will also introduce a good amount about types because of its traits. Learning C or Zig will teach you another lot about memory, this time about the different ways to manage it manually, how different allocators behave, and when to use them. Learning Haskell will teach you a new world of techniques and paradigms and bring you to a much deeper dive into type theory and its applications.

What is worth learning is heavily dependent on what you already know.

I will even dare to say that this applies to speaking languages just as well, not just programming languages. For me, a native Brazilian, learning Spanish is good but adds very little in terms of how I think since both languages are very similar in structure and ancestry; learning English, on the other hand, makes my mind work in an entirely different mode. Thoughts are formed by language, and knowing how to architect your thoughts with multiple structures enables you to think more diversely.

This is one of the reasons why I didn’t choose French or Italian when I was picking a new language to study. Although clearly distinct, they share much of their structure and ancestry with the languages I already know. I was more inclined to learn Japanese, Korean, or Thai because they differ entirely from everything I knew, which meant more to understand and improve. I am currently studying Thai and loving all the process.


  1. 19th epigram from: Alan J. Perlis. 1982. Special Feature: Epigrams on programming. SIGPLAN Not. 17, 9 (September 1982), 7–13.