"Erlang as a First Language" -- crazy? or just stupid?

Michael Turner <>
Sun Dec 20 06:33:44 CET 2009

That's what I'm wondering.  I'm holding out for a possible Answer #3:
"Sure, at least if they are smart enough."

I might have "smart enough" covered.  I'm working on a project in the
overlap between cognitive science and linguistics.  These people aren't
necessarily math-heavy (on the linguistics side, anyway), but they can
tolerate odd notations, abstruse jargon and fine conceptual distinctions
that would evoke only dread, if not nausea, in ordinary folk.

I've been evaluating Erlang for this project in the only way I think
possible: after having identified what's important and what's not in a
language/system for this project, and seeing that Erlang roughly matches
up, I started writing modeling code.

Here's where the matchup is clearly bad, from a lifecycle point of view:
Erlang is still a small minority language.  Sure, it's possible that a
mini-gold-rush is starting for it, and if so, that's good for Erlang,
mid- to long-term. But in my experience, the sudden appearance of money
can make the programmer supply situation worse in research circles:
hackers in academia start getting head-hunted ferociously.  What I'm
working on is likely to remain a lab creature for years, if it's viable
at all.  Somebody besides me has got to be able to support it,
eventually if not sooner.  So I'm thinking maybe the more adept users
might be good candidates for the role of programmers as well.

But you see the problem: it might mean that Erlang is effectively their
first language.  Maybe they had a little exposure in high school or an
elementary programming course in college.  At most.  And maybe that
experience even turned them off a little.

What are the first-language learnability issues with Erlang?  I'm poorly
qualified to think about this.  Although I wouldn't say I learn
programming languages quickly, I don't have major blocks either.  Over
the last 40 years, I've probably written something more significant
than "Hello, world" in more languages than I have fingers.  When I run
across a term like "atom", I think, "probably lisp-like", and I'm
off to the races.  I never really hacked Prolog, but having done it a
little helped a lot with with Erlang.  Even Pascal helped: that nagging
little terminator-vs-separator distinction with semicolons and whatnot
had migrated up into my ulnar tendons since college (so *that's* why
they hurt sometimes!), but made it back down to my fingers pretty
quickly when called.  So taking up Erlang in my mid-fifties is only
making me think, "Why didn't I start with it before my hair went
totally grey?"

Maybe this isn't the best list for asking this question, because
probably most of you are like me anyway, in spirit if not in age.  But I
can't think where else to ask.

-michael turner

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