The Ultimate Guide to Programming Languages

There are hundreds of known programming languages in existence right now. Our guide will breakdown what is a programming language and what are the top languages you should be aware of.

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by Shauna Blackmon

Published on June 23, 2022 ยท Updated on July 11, 2022

Reviewed by Darnell Kenebrew

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If you had to guess how many programming languages have ever existed, what would you say?

A lot of people, even those not in the tech industry, can probably rattle off a few they have picked up here or there. People who have been in the industry a while might be able to name twenty or thirty. Is that what you guessed?

In fact, there are somewhere between 300-700 known programming languages in existence right now, and possibly many more! Considering the first programming language was invented in 1883, some of these are no longer in use, but we have been able to maintain a fairly detailed record of the evolution of the programming language family tree. A lot has changed in the last 140 years. Programming has gone from one woman's unrecognized work and talent to an essential part of our daily life.

What Are Programming Languages?

Programming languages are the bridge that allows humans and computers to communicate. As computers do not yet understand complex human language, we meet in the middle and have fashioned numerous systems of 1s and 0s into a sort of language. Through these languages, we have developed everything from social media applications to complex systems on the International Space Station.

Programming languages essentially provide a list of commands for a machine to perform. We often have to give them precise instructions; otherwise, they often find interesting ways to do something unpredictable. As more attention goes into artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, humans are finding ways to teach code to find its own path to a solution.

The benefits of programming languages have impacted almost every kind of industry. While large tech companies employ many coding professionals, they represent a small fraction of programming languages' impact. This, in part, is what makes learning to code so versatile. Once you understand the principles of how to talk to computers, numerous professional avenues open up.

What programming language you should learn depends on what you want to do, as languages are just tools. Some, like Python, are great multi-tools, while others are designed to perform very specific tasks.

Front-End vs. Back-End Languages

Front-end development refers to everything the user sees and interacts with on a website or app. Common front-end languages include HTML and JavaScript. The primary goal is often to make things visually pleasing and easy to use.

Back-end development refers to the coding working behind the curtain โ€” the parts a user cannot see that make a program or application function. Common back-end programming languages include Python and Ruby, and the primary focus is on making a program that isn't too slow or clumsy.

Front-End vs. Back-End Languages
Front-End Languages Back-End Languages
The part of a site that users can see and interact with The part of the site that tells the program what to do and how to do it
Focus on design and functionality Focus on speed and accuracy
Includes text, images, videos, and navigation menus Includes APIs, utilities, and creating libraries

Types of Programming Languages

Programming languages are remarkably similar to human languages in that they are often grouped and evolve together. Or, one develops and then sprouts off in different versions (like C, which over time created C# and C++).

There are five general categories of programming languages, although many languages fall into more than one. With hundreds of known programming languages in existence, there is more overlap than strict differences between many of them. Some programming languages are versatile and used across numerous projects, while others are specialized to perform certain tasks.

Functional

Functional programming languages are all based on functions. If you recall from math class, functions are mathematical objects that take one or more input values and produce a single output value. Generally, functional programming uses functions to create clean and maintainable software.

Functional programming languages typically provide mechanisms to define and compose functions and support their execution. They often avoid the concept of shared state (mutable data observed in object-oriented programming) and instead focus on expressions and declarations.

Popular functional programming languages include Haskell, Lisp, and Erlang.

Object-Oriented

Object-oriented programming languages organize themselves around data or objects rather than functions and logic. For example, if you want to move a banner ad on your website, object-oriented programming languages will let you simply move the box instead of forcing you to figure out the logical process to do so.

These languages build structures using classes, objects, methods, and attributes.

Many people find object-oriented programming languages easier to use and more efficient. Object-oriented languages are often used for large or complex programs that are frequently updated.

Popular object-oriented languages include Smalltalk, Java, and C#.

Logic

Logical programming languages are based on formal logic functions. Program statements express facts and rules, setting constraints or relations, and the language's runtime system searches for a set of values that satisfy all of the defined conditions.

For computers to make sense of logic programming, there must be a baseline of existing logic called predicates. These predicates create formulas and perform queries. Some examples of where we use logic programming include artificial intelligence, Big Data processing, and database management.

Popular languages include Prolog and Datalog.

Procedural

Procedural programming is less of its own category but rather an improvement on the way code is written or understood. In many earlier programming languages, if you wanted to refer back to a previous procedure, you had to write it all out again. With procedural programming, you can tell the code to refer back to where it was before. It might be easier to think about it like the song lyrics you look up online. Instead of writing out the chorus over and over again, there might be a section that says "[chorus]," which tells you to scroll back up and find it easily.

Popular procedural languages include Basic, C, and Java.

Scripting

Scripting programming languages are typically used to automate tasks or processes. Often they are interpreted rather than compiled, which means they can run without being converted into a machine-readable format first. Because scripting languages translate the code while running instead of beforehand, they are often used for short scripts rather than full computer programs.

One of the main features of scripting languages is extending or bringing new features and functions to applications. Many consider scripting languages easier to learn and use and an excellent place for beginners to start.

Popular scripting languages include Bash, PHP, and Python.

What Are Programming Languages Used For?

You might think learning how to code is just for people who want to work in Silicon Valley or work in big tech companies. Coding is not only crucial in the tech industry; it's crucial everywhere. In fact, 89% of careers involving coding are not even in the tech industry.

Other common careers that involve coding include science, architecture and design, athletics, criminal justice, and healthcare. Programmers give us our Google searches and Candy Crush, but they also create programs that can more accurately detect cancer cells or better predict baseball players' batting average. Many tech enthusiasts predict that soon, having a basic understanding of coding will be just as common and just as important as literacy.

Benefits of Learning a Programming Language
Pros of Learning a Programming Language Cons of Learning a Programming Language
It can help elevate your career potential. It might be confusing or difficult at first
It keeps your brain flexible and ready to learn like learning a natural language. Languages are constantly changing, and programmers continuously have to learn new things.
Once you learn one, learning subsequent languages is often easier. You might need to learn more than one to achieve your goals.

The Best Programming Languages to Know

Programming Languages Bootcamps

The recent coding "boom" has provided students with seemingly endless ways to learn almost any language in a way that suits their learning style. A quick, free class might help you find your passion if you want to explore your options. Succeeding in online self-paced classes depends on how much effort you put in. Finally, the more structured, university-level classes are often very good but more expensive and less flexible, which does not work for every student.

If you want to try and learn your first programming language, there are loads of coding bootcamp options out there. These intensive courses are often cheaper and faster to complete than a four-year degree. They might teach specific languages or skill sets for a career. Check out coding bootcamps in your area, as well as popular online platforms such as BrainStation or General Assembly.

Frequently Asked Questions About Programming Languages

Is C++ the hardest programming language to learn?

There is no definitive answer to what programming language is the hardest โ€” it depends on the individual learner's background and level of experience. C++ is quite technical and math-focused, leading some people to find it more difficult. Others may find it relatively easy to learn.

Ultimately, the difficulty of learning any given programming language is subjective and depends on the individual. Generally, it is advised for programmers to learn C before they start learning either C++ or C#.

Which programming language is in high demand in 2022?

CodingDojo analyzed how many times different programming languages appeared in listings found on job boards. They found that Python, SQL, Java, R, and Visual Basic were the top five languages that employers looked for.

Programmers are in high demand, so it might be advantageous to focus on what career you may want to pursue before choosing a language to learn. In the end, programming languages are just tools to help us create the things that interest us. If you want to work in data science, Python, R, or SQL are helpful. Or on the other hand, if you want to design websites, JavaScript, Python, and TypeScript are your best options.

Which programming language has the highest salary?

Seniority, company type, and location are more likely to affect salary than what programming language you know. That being said, Python, Java, Golang, Ruby, C++, C#, and SQL are some of the most in-demand languages that often lead to higher-paying jobs.

According to Indeed.com, the average salary for a Python developer is $108,040, $110,350 for a Java Developer, $113,530 for a C++ Developer, and $96,200 for a SQL Developer. Generally, experience and what you want to do with that particular language will affect your salary much more than what language you choose to learn.

Can I get a job if I learn a programming language?

Programmers are in high demand, but nothing is ever guaranteed. While it might be easier to find a job as a programmer than in other fields, it still requires commitment and dedication to land your dream job, especially if you are brand new to the industry.

Some bootcamps or programs are designed to be quick and easy introductions to coding, while others are more exhaustive and are comparable to a formal degree. Many of these coding courses offer career services to their students to help prepare them for coding interviews. But of course, you get out what you put in.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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