Imagine a world without programming languages. Consider for a moment all of the things you use on a daily basis that were created with the help of a programming language: your computer, your phone, your favorite apps. Even the website you’re reading this on was built using a programming language.
Now, imagine trying to create any of those things without a programming language. It would be nearly impossible! Programming languages are essential for communicating instructions to computers.
There are dozens of different programming languages, each with its unique syntax and set of features. While some programming languages are designed for specific tasks, others can be used for various purposes.
Choosing the right programming language for a project can be daunting. Still, it’s essential to select one well-suited for the task. This article will provide an overview of some of the most popular programming languages in use today.
What Are Computer Programming Languages?
A programming language is a formal language consisting of a set of instructions—often called code—used to produce various kinds of output. Programming languages are used to create programs that can control a machine’s behavior or express algorithms.
In simpler terms, a programming language is a way for humans to tell computers what to do. Just as we use different languages to communicate with different people—English, Spanish, Mandarin, etc.—we use different programming languages to communicate with computers.
Computers are extremely fast and consistent, but they are not very good at understanding natural human language. For this reason, programming languages use a specific syntax or set of rules to structure the code in a way the computer can understand.
Once the code is written, it must be compiled or translated into a form the computer can execute. This process is known as compilation. The compiler is a program that translates the code written in one programming language into another, usually machine code that can be read and executed by the computer’s processor.
In some cases, the code is interpreted rather than compiled. Here, an interpreter program reads and executes the code line by line rather than translating it into machine code. Although this process can be slower, it tends to be more flexible because you can change the code on the fly without recompiling the entire program.
Why Are There Different Programming Languages for Different Functions?
Different programming languages were created for different purposes. Some are designed for specific tasks, while others have more general purposes.
Low-level programming languages like assembly language and machine code are designed to interact directly with the computer’s hardware. These codes are usually specific to a particular type of processor and can be very difficult for humans to read and write.
On the other hand, high-level programming languages like Python and Java are designed to be more user-friendly. They use English-like words and syntax, making it much easier for humans to read and write. High-level programming languages are also more portable, meaning they can be run on different types of processors.
While there are dozens of different programming languages, they can be broadly classified into four main categories:
Procedural Programming Languages
These languages are based on a sequence of commands or instructions that tell the computer what to do. FORTRAN, BASIC, and Pascal are examples of procedural programming languages. They use structured programming techniques, which break the code down into smaller modules or blocks that are more easily understood and reused.
The third generation of programming languages, also called 3GL, were procedural. It consists of a series of English-like words that humans can understand easily to write instructions. These languages are also called high-level programming languages because they are closer to human language than machine code.
They need to be translated into machine code before the computer can execute them. Procedural languages, however, had some limitations. They did not support data hiding or inheritance—two critical concepts in object-oriented programming.
Object-Oriented Programming Languages
These languages are based on the concept of objects, which are self-contained modules of code that can be used in other programs. Objects contain data, as well as the instructions, or methods, that tell the computer what to do with that data. C++ and Java are examples of object-oriented programming languages.
In addition to supporting data hiding and inheritance, object-oriented languages also support polymorphism—the ability of an object to take on different forms. For example, an object that represents a car can be used in a program that simulates traffic. The same object, however, could also be used in a program that helps you design a new car. In each case, the car object would have different attributes and methods, but it would still be recognizable as a car.
While there are many object-oriented programming languages, the most popular ones are class- and prototype-based.
In class-based languages, an object is an instance of a class. A class is a template or blueprint for an object. It defines the attributes and methods that an object can have. C++ and Java are examples of class-based object-oriented programming languages.
Functional Programming Languages
A functional programming language is one where the primary unit of code is a function. A function is a self-contained block of code that takes one or more input values and produces an output value. Lisp and Scheme are examples of functional programming languages.
Functional programming languages are declarative, meaning you specify what you want the computer to do without specifying how the computer should do it. This is in contrast to imperative languages, such as C++ and Java, where you write code that tells the computer, step-by-step, how to do something.
Logic Programming Languages
A programmer using a logic programming language specifies the facts and rules that describe a problem, and the computer figures out how to solve it. Prolog is an example of a logic programming language. You might use a logic programming language to write a program that helps you schedule your day.
The facts would describe the tasks that need to be done, and the rules would describe the constraints, such as the order in which the tasks need to be done. The computer would then use these facts and rules to create a schedule that meets all the constraints.
Scripting languages are used to write code that automates tasks. For example, you could use a scripting language to write a program that would check all the links on a web page to ensure they were working. Perl, PHP, and Python are examples of scripting languages.
Scripting languages are usually interpreted, meaning the code is not compiled into an executable program. Instead, the code is run by a separate program called an interpreter. The interpreter reads the code and executes the instructions one at a time.
Examples of Computer Languages
Now that we’ve looked at some of the different types of computer languages let’s take a closer look at a few specific examples.
C++ is a powerful, object-oriented language widely used in the development of software systems. It was developed in the late 1970s by Bjarne Stroustrup while working on his Ph.D. thesis at Bell Labs.
Designed as an extension of the programming language C, C++ adds object-oriented features to its predecessor. These features include classes, inheritance, and polymorphism. C++ code is typically compiled into machine code, which can be run on any computer with a C++ compiler.
Its popularity stems from its flexibility and the fact that it can be used for low-level systems programming and high-level application development.
Some common uses of C++ include:
- Game development: Many of the most popular video games, including Halo, Call of Duty, and Gears of War, are written in C++. You can also find C++ in popular game engines such as Unreal Engine and Unity.
- Video game consoles like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 also use C++ in their operating systems.
- Operating systems: C++ is a key component of many popular operating systems, including Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer, and My SQL server.
- GUI applications: If you’ve ever used Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Word, or Apple iTunes, you’ve used an application with a C++ GUI. GUI applications are typically written in C++, as this language is well suited for handling the complex graphical elements of an application.
- If you’re interested in learning C++, several resources can help you get started.
- Books: A quick search on Amazon.com will reveal a wide variety of books on C++, ranging from beginner’s guides to advanced texts.
- Online tutorials: If you prefer to learn online, there are a number of excellent C++ tutorials, such as those offered by Codecademy, Udemy, and Coursera.
- C++ compilers: To write and run C++ code, you will need a C++ compiler. Popular C++ compilers include Microsoft Visual C++, GNU Compiler Collection (GCC), and Clang.
Once a compiler is installed, you can start writing and running C++ code. If you’re just getting started, we recommend checking out some of the resources listed above. With a bit of practice, you’ll be writing C++ code like a pro in no time!
The Java programming language was first released in 1995. Since then, it has become one of the most popular programming languages in the world. Many of the world’s most popular websites, including LinkedIn.com and Behance.net, use Java in their back-end systems.
James Gosling, the creator of Java, designed the language with a few key goals in mind. First, he wanted to create a language that would be easy for programmers to use. Second, he wanted the language to be platform-independent, meaning that code written in Java could run on any type of computer.
To achieve these goals, Gosling made a number of design decisions. For example, he chose to use a virtual machine, which would act as a “middleman” between the code and the computer. This would allow Java code to run on any type of computer, as long as that computer had a Java virtual machine installed.
Some common uses of Java include:
- Web applications: Many of the world’s most popular websites use Java in their back-end systems.
- Desktop applications: Programs like Acrobat Reader and ThinkFree are written in Java.
- Mobile applications: The user interface of the Android operating system is written in Java.
- Video games: Minecraft, one of the world’s most popular video games, is written in Java.
- Online courses from Codecademy, Udacity, and Udemy are great ways to learn Java. These courses will walk you through the basics of the language and help you build small projects. There are also some excellent books on Java, such as Head First Java and Thinking in Java.
Once you’ve learned the language basics, you can start writing your own Java programs. To run your code, you will need to install a Java development kit (JDK). The JDK includes a compiler, which will translate your code into a form that the computer can understand.
Python is a versatile scripting language popular in many fields, including web development, scientific computing, and artificial intelligence.
Python is easy to learn for beginners and has many features that make it an attractive choice for experienced programmers. For example, Python code is often more straightforward and easier to read than code written in other languages. This feature makes Python an excellent choice for prototyping and debugging.
In the late 1980s, Guido van Rossum, the creator of Python, was working on a project at the National Research Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science in the Netherlands. He was looking for a scripting language that was easy to use and had clear syntax. Rossum was unsatisfied with the existing options, so he created his own language.
He named the language after Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a British comedy series that he was a fan of.
Common uses of Java include:
- Web development: The Django web framework, written in Python, is used by many of the world’s largest websites, including Instagram and Pinterest.
- Scientific computing: Due to its clear syntax and powerful data structures, Python is a popular language for scientific computing.
- Artificial intelligence: Python is one of the most popular languages for developing artificial intelligence and machine learning applications.
Codecademy, Future Learn, and Coursera all offer excellent online courses for learning Python. These courses will walk you through the basics of the language and help you build small projects. You can also find a number of excellent books on Python, such as Learning Python and Dive Into Python.
After you’ve learned the basics of the language, you can start writing your own Python programs.
GO, also known as Golang, is a programming language created at Google in 2009. GO is a statically typed language, meaning variables must be declared with a specific type (e.g., int, string, bool), and that type can not be changed. Every GO program is made up of packages, and each package contains one or more GO source files.
One of the unique features of GO is that it uses garbage collection to manage memory. Garbage collection is a method of automatic memory management that reclaims any memory that is no longer being used by the program. This helps to avoid many of the memory-related problems that can occur in other languages.
Robert Griesemer, Rob Pike, and Ken Thompson are the three primary authors of GO. Griesemer and Pike were both engineers at Google, and Thompson is a well-known computer scientist who helped develop the UNIX operating system.
Some common uses of GO include:
- Command-line applications: Many popular command-line applications, such as Docker and Hugo, are written in GO.
- Web servers: The net/HTTP package in GO makes it easy to write efficient web servers.
- Distributed systems: GO’s support for concurrent programming makes it a popular choice for developing distributed systems.
Golang.org, the official website for GO, provides a number of resources for learning the language. The Tour of GO—an interactive tutorial—is a great place to start. For more in-depth learning, check out the Effective GO guide and the GO blog.
PHP is a widely used general-purpose scripting language. The PHP code is typically embedded into HTML code and can be used to create dynamic web pages.
Since PHP is a server-side language, programmers use PHP to write the code that is executed on the server before the page is sent to the browser. As a result, PHP code can be used to manipulate data from form submissions, database queries, and cookies.
PHP was originally created in 1994 by Rasmus Lerdorf. Lerdorf originally created PHP for his personal home page. He later rewrote these scripts producing a richer and much larger implementation. Andi Gutmans and Zeev Suraski, two Israeli developers, rewrote the parser in 2000 and released it as PHP 4.
Some common uses of PHP include:
- Content management systems: WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla are all written in PHP.
- E-commerce platforms: Shopify and Magento are two popular e-commerce platforms written in PHP.
Excellent resources for learning PHP include the PHP Manual, php.net, and W3Schools. For a more comprehensive learning experience, consider taking an online course, such as those offered by Codecademy and Udemy.
Programming languages are important because they provide a way for people to send instructions to computers.
Since the early days of computing, there have been many different programming languages, each with its own unique features and syntax. And while some languages are more popular than others, there is no one “best” language. The best language for a particular task depends on the requirements of that task.
So, whether you’re looking to create a simple web page or a complex distributed system, there’s a programming language that’s well suited for the task.