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Teach Foundational Language Principles

Teach Foundational Language Principles, illustration

Credit: Jane Kelly

The need for more people to learn to program has received widespread attention recently (see, for example, and its recent "Hour of Code" held during CS Education week in December of 2013 and 2014). While the ability to program has tremendous potential to support and channel the creative power of people, we should remember that programming languages continuously arise as the need to solve new problems emerges and that it is language principles that are lasting. As we discuss in this Viewpoint, language foundations serve an increasingly important and necessary role in the design and implementation of complex software systems in use by industry. Industry needs more people educated in language principles to help it deliver reliable and efficient software solutions to its customers.

Historically, many important principles of languages have arisen in response to the difficulties of designing and implementing complex systems. Garbage collection, introduced by John McCarthy around 1959 for the Lisp language, is now commonplace in modern programming languages such as Java and C#, as well as popular scripting languages such as Python and JavaScript.8 Dijkstra's "Go To Statement Considered Harmful" Communications Letter to the Editor advocated the use of structured programming, which is enshrined in all modern programming languages.5 Type systems classify program expressions by the kind of values they compute,12 enabling compilers to prove the absence of certain kinds of errors and optimize code more effectively. Hoare's assertional method provides a framework for establishing the correctness of programs.6


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