If you’re looking for some big “pound your chest” explanation for why you should learn R, then you’re looking in the wrong place. I know R. That’s why I teach R. Why did I learn R? There were people around me that new R and I knew I could depend on them to help me learn R if I ran into any problems. Less important than which language you should learn is that you learn A language. Any language, really.
The way I see it there are several credible languages if you are a scientist: R, Python, C/C++, Java. R and Python are “high level” languages that have a lot of built in goodies to make your life easy. As you’ll see, it’s pretty easy to build a graph or to calculate a mean in R (and python). These languages are engineered to make it easier on the programmer than the person running the code. In contrast, C/C++ and Java are not as easy to program, but are far more efficient and run blazing fast. You’ll hear about others like Julia, Ruby, or Perl. These aren’t quite mainstream for biologists or aren’t fully developed yet or are past their sell by date. Unless you have needs for high performance, I’d probably stay away from C/C++ and Java isn’t really all that high performance. If you need the speed of C++ you can write C++ in R.
This leaves you to chose between R and Python. You can google “Should I learn R or Python” and you’ll get screed after screed telling you why one language is the best. Do not read these. They’re next to worthless and smack of all sorts of machismo. I block accounts on Twitter that go off on R vs. Python screeds. I know R’s warts and I know that Python could possibly cure these warts. But I also know that Python has its own warts. Rather than carry the cognitive baggage of learning both, I do what I need in R. At least a few times a year I tell myself I should learn Python to know it, but when it comes to doing it, I’m just not sold. To be honest, to really appreciate the differences between the languages you probably need a fair bit more experience than someone that is reading this. Note that someone else could/should easily rewrite this paragraph switching R and Python.
But really! What should you learn? Depends. What does your research group use? What do your collaborators use? What do the people around you use? If you have a problem, who are you going to get help from? For me, the answers to these questions were generally: R. Again, it’s more important that you learn your first language than which language you learn. Master your first language and then start noodling with others. I always cringe when I see someone encouraging a novice to learn other languages. It can only sow confusion and frustration. Since you’re here, I suspect someone has encouraged you to learn R or that your local community has some R chops. Welcome! I want to challenge you to not just use your community to help you, but to also nourish your community to help it grow.
This was originally posted as a subsection of my minimalR introductory materials.