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I would like to learn how to write shell based programs to interface with hardware, primarily serial, printer, and usb ports. What language would be a good start? I have a good understanding of Linux and very basic programing skills. I used to make simple dos shell scripts and program in BASIC. I'm currently running slackware 10.2
If you want a scripting language that's broad enough for your purposes, python is good. Perl is less universal than it used to be (tending to be supplanted by python), but it's still good. Bash scripting would serve you well for some things, and is worth learning.
I'd recommend you dip into all three of these.
I'm an old school C coder, but I'm interested in doing more with those 3 myself.
It very much depends on what you want to do. If you're looking to do very low-level communication with the parallel port / serial ports then you'll probably want to do so with C or C++ (C if you want to write a device driver).
If what you wish to do is utilise libraries and operating system interfaces to these devices, you have a lot more freedom. The rule of thumb I use is - use as high a level language as possible for a given task. My rationale is that errors per lines of code is more or less independent of and language used, so for a given problem you'll have fewer bugs with higher level languages than lower level ones. It'll also probably take less time, everything else being equal (like your proficiency with a given language).
The flip side of this is that the higher level languages are more abstracted from the hardware, so there's less of an opportunity to do low-level fiddling, which constrains your ability to do some tasks.
Learn C programming first, it's easier than C++ and C has such a broad spectrum of use, especially at the hardware level. Once you become proficient in C, try Python, it's very powerful, popular and widely used today.