by Durga Prasana

Learn Scala from 0–60: The Basics

Photo by Sebastian Grochowicz on Unsplash

Scala is a general purpose, high-level programming language that offers a balance between developing functional and object-oriented programs.

What is functional programming all about? In simple terms, functions are the first-class citizens in functional programming. In order to extend upon a core set of functionalities of a program, we tend to write additional classes extending upon certain guidelines / interfaces. In functional programming, functions help us achieve the same.

We’ll use the Scala REPL for all explanations. It is a very handy and informative tool for learning Scala. It logs cute little messages on how our code is interpreted and executed.

Let’s start with the basics first.

1. Variables

We can define immutable variables using val:

scala> val name = "King"name: String = King

Mutable variables can be defined and modified using var:

scala> var name = "King"name: String = King
scala> name = "Arthur"name: String = Arthur

We use def to assign a label to an immutable value whose evaluation is deferred for a later time. It means the label’s value is lazily evaluated every time upon use.

scala> var name = "King"name: String = King
scala> def alias = namealias: String
scala> aliasres2: String = King

Did you observe something interesting?

While defining alias, no value was assigned to alias: String since it is lazily associated, when we invoke it. What would happen if we change the value of name?

scala> aliasres5: String = King
scala> name = "Arthur, King Arthur"name: String = Arthur, King Arthur
scala> aliasres6: String = Arthur, King Arthur

2. Control flow

We use control flow statements to express our decision logic.

You can write an if-else statement as below:

if(name.contains("Arthur")) {  print("Entombed sword")} else {  print("You're not entitled to this sword")}

Or, you can use while:

var attempts = 0while (attempts < 3) {  drawSword()  attempts += 1}

3. Collections

Scala explicitly distinguishes between immutable versus mutable collections — right from the package namespace itself ( scala.collection.immutable or scala.collection.mutable).

Unlike immutable collections, mutable collections can be updated or extended in place. This enables us to change, add, or remove elements as a side effect.

But performing addition, removal, or update operations on immutable collections returns a new collection instead.

Immutable collections are always automatically imported via the scala._ (which also contains alias for scala.collection.immutable.List).

However, to use mutable collections, you need to explicitly import scala.collection.mutable.List.

In the spirit of functional programming, we’ll primarily base our examples on immutable aspects of the language, with minor detours into the mutable side.


We can create a list in various ways:

scala> val names = List("Arthur", "Uther", "Mordred", "Vortigern")
names: List[String] = List(Arthur, Uther, Mordred, Vortigern)

Another handy approach is to define a list using the cons :: operator. This joins a head element with the remaining tail of a list.

scala> val name = "Arthur" :: "Uther" :: "Mordred" :: "Vortigern" :: Nil
name: List[String] = List(Arthur, Uther, Mordred, Vortigern)

Which is equivalent to:

scala> val name = "Arthur" :: ("Uther" :: ("Mordred" :: ("Vortigern" :: Nil)))
name: List[String] = List(Arthur, Uther, Mordred, Vortigern)

We can access list elements directly by their index. Remember Scala uses zero-based indexing:

scala> name(2)
res7: String = Mordred

Some common helper methods include:

list.head, which returns the first element:

scala> name.head
res8: String = Arthur

list.tail, which returns the tail of a list (which includes everything except the head):

scala> name.tail
res9: List[String] = List(Uther, Mordred, Vortigern)


Set allows us to create a non-repeated group of entities. List doesn’t eliminate duplicates by default.

scala> val nameswithDuplicates = List("Arthur", "Uther", "Mordred", "Vortigern", "Arthur", "Uther")
nameswithDuplicates: List[String] = List(Arthur, Uther, Mordred, Vortigern, Arthur, Uther)

Here, ‘Arthur’ is repeated twice, and so is ‘Uther’.

Let’s create a Set with the same names. Notice how it excludes the duplicates.

scala> val uniqueNames = Set("Arthur", "Uther", "Mordred", "Vortigern", "Arthur", "Uther")
uniqueNames: scala.collection.immutable.Set[String] = Set(Arthur, Uther, Mordred, Vortigern)

We can check for the existence of specific element in Set using contains():

scala> uniqueNames.contains("Vortigern")res0: Boolean = true

We can add elements to a Set using the + method (which takes varargs i.e. variable-length arguments)

scala> uniqueNames + ("Igraine", "Elsa", "Guenevere")res0: scala.collection.immutable.Set[String] = Set(Arthur, Elsa, Vortigern, Guenevere, Mordred, Igraine, Uther)

Similarly we can remove elements using the - method

scala> uniqueNames - "Elsa"
res1: scala.collection.immutable.Set[String] = Set(Arthur, Uther, Mordred, Vortigern)


Map is an iterable collection which contains mappings from key elements to respective value elements, which can be created as:

scala> val kingSpouses = Map( | "King Uther" -> "Igraine", | "Vortigern" -> "Elsa", | "King Arthur" -> "Guenevere" | )
kingSpouses: scala.collection.immutable.Map[String,String] = Map(King Uther -> Igraine, Vortigern -> Elsa, King Arthur -> Guenevere)

Values for a specific key in map can be accessed as:

scala> kingSpouses("Vortigern")res0: String = Elsa

We can add an entry to Map using the + method:

scala> kingSpouses + ("Launcelot" -> "Elaine")res0: scala.collection.immutable.Map[String,String] = Map(King Uther -> Igraine, Vortigern -> Elsa, King Arthur -> Guenevere, Launcelot -> Elaine)

To modify an existing mapping, we simply re-add the updated key-value:

scala> kingSpouses + ("Launcelot" -> "Guenevere")res1: scala.collection.immutable.Map[String,String] = Map(King Uther -> Igraine, Vortigern -> Elsa, King Arthur -> Guenevere, Launcelot -> Guenevere)

Note that since the collection is immutable, each edit operation returns a new collection( res0, res1) with the changes applied. The original collection kingSpouses remains unchanged.

4. Functional combinators

Now that we’ve learned how to group a set of entities together, let’s see how we can use functional combinators to generate meaningful transformations on such collections.

In John Hughes’ simple words:

A combinator is a function which builds program fragments from program fragments.

An in-depth look at how combinators work is outside of this article’s scope. But, we’ll try to touch upon a high-level understanding of the concept anyhow.

Let’s take an example.

Suppose we want to find names of all queens using the kingSpouses collection map that we created.

We’d want to do something along the lines of examining each entry in the map. If the key has the name of a king, then we’re interested in the name of it’s spouse (i.e. queen).

We shall use the filter combinator on map, which has a signature like:

collection.filter( /* a filter condition method which returns true on matching map entries */)

Overall we shall perform the following steps to find queens:

  • Find the (key, value) pairs with kings’ names as keys.
  • Extract the values (names of queen) only for such tuples.

The filter is a function which, when given a (key, value), returns true / false.

  1. Find the map entries pertaining to kings.

Let’s define our filtering predicate function. Since key_value is a tuple of (key, value), we extract the key using ._1 (and guess what ._2 returns?)

scala> def isKingly(key_value: (String, String)): Boolean = key_value._1.toLowerCase.contains("king")
isKingly: (key_value: (String, String))Boolean

Now we shall use the filter function defined above to filter kingly entries.

scala> val kingsAndQueens = kingSpouses.filter(isKingly)
kingsAndQueens: scala.collection.immutable.Map[String,String] = Map(King Uther -> Igraine, King Arthur -> Guenevere)

2. Extract the names of respective queens from the filtered tuples.

scala> kingsAndQueens.values
res10: Iterable[String] = MapLike.DefaultValuesIterable(Igraine, Guenevere)

Let’s print out the names of queens using the foreach combinator:

scala> kingsAndQueens.values.foreach(println)IgraineGuenevere

Some other useful combinators are foreach, filter, zip, partition, find.

We shall re-visit some of these after having learnt how to define functions and passing functions as arguments to other functions in higher-order functions.

Let’s recap on what we’ve learned:

  • Different ways of defining variables
  • Various control-flow statements
  • Some basics about various collections
  • Overview of using functional combinators on collections

I hope you found this article useful. It is first in a series of articles to follow on learning Scala.

In part two, we’ll learn about defining classes, traits, encapsulation and other object-oriented concepts.

Please feel free to let me know your feedback and suggestions on how I can improve the content. Until then, ❤ coding.