Here We Go Again: Why Is It Difficult for Developers to Learn Another Programming Language?

  • Nischal Shrestha
  • Colton Botta
  • Titus Barik
  • Chris Parnin

42nd International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE) |

Once a programmer knows one language, they can leverage concepts and knowledge already learned, and easily pick up another programming language. But is that always the case? To understand if programmers have difficulty learning additional programming languages, we conducted an empirical study of Stack Overflow questions across 18 different programming languages. We hypothesized that previous knowledge could potentially interfere with learning a new programming language. From our inspection of 450 Stack Overflow questions, we found 276 instances of interference that occurred due to faulty assumptions originating from knowledge about a different language. To understand why these difficulties occurred, we conducted semi-structured interviews with 16 professional programmers. The interviews revealed that programmers make failed attempts to relate a new programming language with what they already know. Our findings inform design implications for technical authors, toolsmiths, and language designers, such as designing documentation and automated tools that reduce interference, anticipating uncommon language transitions during language design, and welcoming programmers not just into a language, but its entire ecosystem.