Teaching programming skills is a hard task. It is even harder if one targets an audience with no or little mathematical background. Although there are books on programming that target such groups, they often fail to raise or maintain interest due to artificial examples that lack reference to the professional issues that the audience typically face. This book fills the gap by addressing linguistics, a profession and academic subject for which basic knowledge of script programming is becoming more and more important. The book Python for Linguists by Michael Hammond is an introductory Python course targeted at linguists with no prior programming background. It succeeds previous books for Perl (Hammond 2008) and Java (Hammond 2002) by the same author, and reflects the current de facto prevalence of Python when it comes to adoption and available packages for natural language processing.
We feel it necessary to clarify that the book aims at (general) linguists in the broad sense rather than computational linguists. Its aim is to teach linguists the fundamental concepts of programming using typical examples from linguistics. The book should not be mistaken as a course for learning basic algorithms in computational linguistics. We acknowledge that the author nowhere makes such a claim; however, given the thematic proximity to computational linguistics, one should have the right expectation before working with the book.
Chapters 1–5 lay the foundations of the Python programming language, introducing the most important language constructs but deferring object oriented programming to a later part of the book. The focus in Chapters 1 and 2 covers the basic data types (numbers, strings, dictionaries), with a particular emphasis on simple string operations, and introduces some more advanced concepts such as mutability.
Chapters 3–5 introduce control structures, input–output operations, and modules. The book goes at great length to visualize the program flow and the state of different variables for different steps in a program execution, which is certainly very helpful for learners with no prior programming experience. The book also guides the learner to understand certain error types that frequently occur in computer programming (but might be unintuitive for beginners). For example, when discussing function calls, much care is devoted to pointing out the unintended consequences stemming from mutability and side effects.
The book draws connections to linguistics by using a made-up, nonsensical language for some of the examples (e.g., producing artificial sentences that follow a particular pattern). These examples could be made be more relevant for linguists if a real language fragment were used.
It is great that the book shows how to combine the power of character streams through piping (with command line tools on the operating system level) with further processing in a Python script, as mastery of this useful skill can become very handy for any language researcher. However, at certain places the chance was missed to teach beginners how canonical Python code should be written. For example, the syntax used for reading files does not correspond to the official recommendation for file input/output, which encourages the use of the with open(filename) construct.1 Also, for variable naming, the book includes many examples with very short one- or two-letter variables, or names in CamelCase, both of which are discouraged by the Python style guidelines.2
The first part of the book ends with the step-by-step construction of a script that reads in a book from Project Gutenberg,3 showing the implementations of necessary helper methods, such as sentences splitting and tokenization, and prints out some basic statistics of the text.
The book does a great job introducing all important concepts in a meaningful order and laying the foundation for programming in Python without leaving gaps that could derail beginners that are not yet used to the frustrations inherent to writing software. The idea of efficiency and runtime complexity is less pronounced in this book—probably because it is directed to linguists rather than starting computer scientists. However, one might argue that conveying a basic idea of runtime and how it is dependent on certain choices (1 step vs. 1 loop vs. 2 nested loops) would have been a useful addition. This could have been combined with explaining the basic ideas and motivations behind frequently used data structures (finding an element in a list vs. in a set, lookup in dictionary).
Chapters 6–8 go into more detail on showing how more complicated text processing problems are solved using regular expressions, text manipulation, and Web crawling. Regular expressions are introduced using many step-by-step examples and explanations. The first exemplary use case is finding consonant clusters and is inspired by phonology. This use case also demonstrates how rule-based engineering is an iterative process, and initial regular expressions are refined once the effect of their application to actual language data can be observed. The second, more elaborate use case is a (somewhat lengthy) reimplementation of the classic Porter stemmer algorithm (Porter 1980). In order for readers to understand the development of the code better, the book presents the same script in several stages (i.e., repeating the code already shown before). Although this is a good idea in the first, foundational chapters of the book, it becomes tiring when done with the more complex examples like the Porter stemmer (it would be better to present small code snippets, and then their composition in an entire script only once).
An entire chapter is devoted to collecting data from the Web; the use case is to crawl a small corpus for the Welsh language. Many real world problems are introduced that NLP practitioners have to face frequently when working with crawled data (such as inconsistent encodings, noisy markup, unresponsive Web pages), as well as tools for parsing Web data and parallel processing. The elaborate example of corpus collection nicely brings together many of the concepts introduced earlier in the book, and serves as a convincing application for showcasing the usefulness of parallel processing.
The crawler contains a language guesser based on the most frequent Welsh words. The simple frequency-based heuristic of the language guesser is the only part in the book that shows the potential of quantitative methods for text processing (rather than rule-based methods). Given the prevalence of statistical methods in computational linguistics, it would have been desirable if the book spent more time on the opportunities and pitfalls of using empirical methods for solving practical tasks.
In the last part of the book, Chapters 9–12, more attention is directed toward different programming paradigms that are possible within the Python language. In particular, object oriented programming (OOP), event-driven programming (and how to use it for implementing graphical user interfaces), and the functional programming capabilities of Python are presented.
Even though OOP has been used throughout the book implicitly (since fundamentally everything has the status of an object in Python), it is only very late in the book that the concepts behind OOP are explicitly discussed. It seems that the book treats OOP as an advanced concept that would be too confusing to confront beginners with early on (which might not be the case if OOP concepts are reduced to their main ideas, such as grouping data and functionality together). In order to illustrate the logic behind inheritance, the book uses examples from linguistic hierarchies, for example, syllabification trees (a syllable has an onset and a rhyme, which are all subspans of a word with a spelling and pronunciation), rather than the typical examples usually used for introducing OOP (e.g., a car is a vehicle and has wheels and a location).
A chapter on graphical user interfaces builds on the Tkinter framework, and the most basic concepts (windows, buttons) are introduced. A small graphical demo of the Porter stemmer covered earlier is built as an example for a user interface. Unfortunately there is very little connection to any linguistic use case in this chapter, and user interfaces would have been a great opportunity for showcasing some annotation problem (e.g., rating fluency vs. adequacy of sentences). One could argue that a more modern (and more flexible) approach to user interfaces building on browser-based interaction would have been more useful.
Finally, the Python-specific functional programming language constructs are discussed, and the undesirable consequences of non-functional programming (mutability, side effects) as well as the advantages of functional programming (better control, parallelization, conciseness) are highlighted. An Appendix gives a brief introduction to basic processing with the natural language toolkit (NLTK) (Loper and Bird 2002), such as using its corpora or pre-processing raw text.
General Observations. The book is clearly structured. The author carefully and consistently arranged the different elements of the Python programming language to make it as accessible as possible. Unlike many tutorials for Python available on the Web, this book not just details the syntax of the programming language but it takes the time to convey important programming skills, such as a divide-and-conquer approach to modularize code. Not in all places is the output of the sample code displayed. This may sometimes slow down the process of understanding it. However, the complete code of the book is made publicly available so that readers may test it on their particular Python installation.
Each chapter concludes with a set of exercises. We consider them highly useful in further deepening the subject matter presented in the chapters. The exercises mostly range from simple questions investigating particular details of the concepts presented in the chapter, for example, by modifying the existing examples, up to writing smaller programs from scratch solving particular linguistic tasks.
The linguistic examples chosen may occasionally look a bit construed. Yet, overall they are the main asset of this book and they will be more interesting to the target audience than the examples found in other existing books.
After reading this book, the reader will have a solid grasp of the Python programming language. It should suffice for solving typical daily tasks for linguistics, such as restructuring files or computing low-level statistics (e.g., collecting word frequencies). The knowledge presented in the book may also enable the reader to study more advanced topics related to Python, for example, computational linguistic algorithms, data science, or machine learning.
Some readers may be surprised to see only a few external libraries discussed in the book. However, this may be on purpose and be in line with the didactic concept pursued by the author. The aim of this book is to teach basic programming skills, namely, how to understand and structure code for data processing. This can better be conveyed by showing complete solutions to specific tasks rather than showing how to call a particular Python library. Novices are more likely to acquire a deeper understanding of how programs are written by explaining a programming solution from scratch. Of course, we should also bear in mind that many of the external libraries currently available for Python may be short-lived and not available or maintained in a few years’ time. Nonetheless, we would have appreciated a statement telling the reader to consider publicly available libraries in practice.
Summary. The main goal of Python for Linguists is to teach basic programming skills to linguists that do not have any prior background in computer science. By using linguistically motivated examples throughout, the book does a great job making the material covered relevant to the target group. The structure of the book is well thought-out, and ensures that prerequisites are covered before moving to more advanced topics. This and the exercises that come with each chapter would make the book a great companion for a foundational programming course targeted at linguists.