Python - The Best First Programming Language

I started to learn programming in high school and they taught us C. It felt a bit complicated, focusing more on memory management than on algorithms, but I didn't know about anything else and I was really interested so I went with it. After that, the first programming class in university (that had no prerequisites) was also about C. By then I knew about other programming languages, especially Python, and seeing people with no prior experience struggling I started to ask myself if Python would be a better first language. After TA-ing some programming classes and hosting some Python workshops, I'm convinced that Python is the best first programming language. Let me tell you why.

Here's a taste of what Python looks like:

def contains(numbers, value):  
    for n in numbers:
        if n == value:
            return True
    return False

nums = [1, 2, 3, 7, 13, -2, 4, 8, 9]  
result = contains(nums, 7)  
print result # True  

I showed this snippet of code to people with no programming experience and they had no trouble reading it and understanding its behaviour. I listened to their feedback, reflected on this and came up with four key aspects that I think make Python the first programming language someone should learn. It's a high level, dynamic (and dynamically typed) programming language, featuring an expressive syntax that enhances code readability. Let's talk about every one of them.

Python is a high level language. This doesn't necessarily say much, since C can also be considered a high level language. Let's go with "a higher level language than C". This means that Python provides a level of abstraction that helps you focus on algorithms and what your program should do, hiding the fact that the computer is a dumb machine that only understands binary. Examples of this are plenty - you don't have to manually manage memory, Python will tell you when you access a list out of bounds, strings have built-in support and the standard library comes with well documented functions for mostly anything you'd want to do. Besides, you have access to all the data structures you'll need when studying programming.

The definition of a dynamic programming language is, as Wikipedia mentions, a bit fuzzy, but the main aspect that makes Python a friendly language is its runtime. Thanks to it, we have dynamic typing, easy introspection and reflection! Having all these makes experimenting easier and brings down the time it takes to prototype an idea.

To me, the expressive power of a programming language is composed of two things: how easy it is to express an idea, and how concisely can you do it. I feel that Python allows you to accomplish a lot of things in a few lines of code, without sacrificing readability (check out The Zen of Python). It's the small things, like being able to write 3 < x < 10, that add up to enable you to write short, beautiful code. List comprehensions are another example of powerful syntax:

numbers = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8]  
evens = [x for x in numbers if x % 2 == 0]  

The syntax is similar to the math set-builder notation, which makes it both powerful and readable.

Last but not least, readability is a key strength of Python. I think the biggest reason for this is having indentation as part of the syntax. Python doesn't use curly braces to delimit blocks of code, relying on indentation instead. For beginners, this means they have to write well-indented code for their programs to work, and later on, it means that reading other people's code will be easier.

Besides, Python uses words where other languages would use symbols and numbers (and, or, True, False etc.), bringing it closer to the algorithmic pseudocode.

Try this. Read the following code snippets out loud. Which one is easier to reason about? [C veterans are not eligible!]

is_even = (a % 2 == 0) ? 1 : 0;  
is_even = True if a % 2 == 0 else False  

Of course, we could've used just the comparison as an expression but the point was to show the ternary constructs.

Because the syntax is similar to pseudocode, beginners can have a working implementation of an algorithm they want to study fairly easily. Then, thanks to Python's readability and dynamic nature they can experiment freely in order to make sure they understood the respective algorithm.

For all the mentioned reasons (and more), I think Python is the way to go for teaching programming. To put this claim to the test, ROSEdu started Py4School, a programme in which we teach high school teachers and students Python, as an alternative to C. So far, both teachers and students love it.

To sum up, Python is a newbie-friendly but powerful language, that lets beginners focus on algorithms, abstracting away low level implementation details, thanks to an expressive and readable syntax. I think this makes it, hands down, the best first programming language.

Mihnea Dobrescu-Balaur

Building @Hootsuite Analytics. Interested in Open Source, programming languages and the Open Web. Big fan of basketball and photography. Tweet @mihneadb.

Bucharest, Romania

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