Python or Java – What is better as first language?

Whenever I have the pleasure to teach the beginner course in programming I start with the same question: Python or Java? Since colleagues have good success with Python and since Python is a useful language I am tempted ever again. However, I decide to go with Java every time. Let me explain the reasons.

This year, I even started a discussion on a Python forum to push me towards Python and tell me why I should prefer it. The discussion was an interesting read, but nothing that convinced me.

So I did my own research on Python sites designed for beginners and see how they handle the teaching. As expected, they dive into Python and use its data collections almost from the start, at least shortly after using the Python command line for interactive computations. Some even go quickly into real world usage with Python packages for graphics, artificial intelligence or numerical mathematics.

If Python is that useful and if there are so many libraries available and also quite nice IDEs (my favorite is Spyder) why do I shy back to use it as first language? Here are some reasons.

  • I am teaching mathematicians. Mathematicians are meant to program, to test and to improve basic algorithms. They may also use high level libraries for research, but they should at least be able to start on the roots of the code, and often that is the only way to go. Python is not designed for this use. First, it is a lot slower than Java (which is on the level of C code, by the way). The difference can be a factor of 10 to 50. Then, it hides the basic data types (such byte, short, int, long, float, double) and their problems from the user and encourages to use its infinite arithmetic. I feel that mathematicians should understand the bits and bytes, and get full, speedy control of their code.
  • Python extends its language to compactify the handling of data sets at the cost of extending the language with almost cryptic syntax. E.g., Python can automatically and in one expression create a list of integers satisfying a certain condition or select from another list under a condition. I am convinced that this kind of behind-the-scene operation is not suited to teach beginners how things work and how to write good and clean code. The situation is a bit like Matlab where everything is vectored and loops are costly. You learn how to use the high-level constructs of your language, but not the basics. If you only have a hammer everything looks like a nail.
  • Python is as multi-platform or open-source as Java. Both need an interpreter and cannot be translated to native code to ease implementation of bigger programs on the user systems. Java is even a bit better in this respect. Both languages cannot easily use the native GUI library or other more hardware bound libraries. Python is a bit better here. But this is nothing to worry about as a first language anyway.
  • I also need to answer the question: Is it easier to go from Java to Python or the other way? And, for me, the answer is clearly that Java provides the more basic knowledge on programming. Python is on a higher level. It is more a scripting language than a basic programming language. One may argue that this is good for beginners since they get a mighty system right at the start. After all, you learn to drive a car without knowing how the motor works. But I have seen enough programs in Python to know that it spoils the programmer and drives the thoughts away from a fresh, more efficient solution.

This said, I would very much welcome a second course building on the basics that uses Python and its advanced libraries. Many students are taught R and Matlab in the syllabus. I think Python would be a better choice than Matlab for numerical programming and data visualization. And, in contrast to Matlab, it is open and free.

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