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97 Things Every Programmer Should Know by Kevlin Henney

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Chapter 27. Don’t Just Learn the Language, Understand Its Culture

Anders Norås

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IN HIGH SCHOOL, I HAD TO LEARN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE. At the time, I thought that I’d get by nicely being good at English, so I chose to sleep through three years of French class. A few years later, I went to Tunisia on vacation. Arabic is the official language there and, being a former French colony, French is also commonly used. English is only spoken in the touristy areas. Because of my linguistic ignorance, I found myself confined at the poolside reading Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s tour de force in form and language. Joyce’s playful blend of more than 40 languages was a surprising, albeit exhausting, experience. Realizing how interwoven foreign words and phrases gave the author new ways of expressing himself is something I’ve kept with me in my programming career.

In their seminal book, The Pragmatic Programmer (Addison-Wesley Professional), Andy Hunt and Dave Thomas encourage us to learn a new programming language every year. I’ve tried to live by their advice, and throughout the years, I’ve had the experience of programming in many languages. My most important lesson from my polyglot adventures is that it takes more than just learning the syntax to learn a language: you need to understand its culture.

You can write Fortran in any language, but to truly learn a language you have to embrace it.

Don’t make ...

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