At its core, a programming language is a set of instructions that enables humans to communicate with computers—using a series of symbols that serve as a bridge that allows humans to turn our ideas into instructions computers can understand. Like spoken languages, each language has its own unique syntax, structure, vocabulary, and even slang or shortcuts.
In the vast digital landscape, programming languages are the “lingua francas” of software development, facilitating global conversations between machines and developers, wherever they may be. Their importance extends far beyond lines of code—they empower us to use technology to innovate, automate, and bring our imagination to life.
If you've ever wondered how your favorite apps, websites, or software come to life, you're in the right place. In this article, we'll explore the not-so-basic basics of programming languages, their pivotal role in software development, and how they shape the technological landscape we navigate daily.
What is the role of programming languages in software development?
A computer "speaks" in a "language" using strings of the numerals "1" and "0"—known as binary code. A programming language allows us to translate the computer's binary code into something humans can understand and write.
These languages enable us to communicate with computers, build and organize code, specify functionality and behavior, automate and improve efficiency, collaborate and share code, and solve problems creatively.
Here are some examples of how specific programming languages can help you to:
Communicate with computers:
Python is widely used for writing scripts and programs to communicate instructions to computers. For instance, a Python script can automate file operations, manage system tasks, or control hardware components, allowing developers to interact with computers at a low level.
Build and organize code:
Java is known for its object-oriented programming paradigm, making it suitable for building large-scale enterprise applications. Developers use Java to organize code into classes and modules, promoting code reusability and maintainability. The language's structure helps in creating well-organized and structured software projects.
Specify functionality and behavior:
Automate and boost efficiency:
Example: Bash (Bourne Again Shell)
Bash scripting is used for automating repetitive tasks in the Linux environment. Developers write bash scripts to automate system tasks, file operations, and other routine processes. This enhances efficiency by reducing manual intervention in day-to-day operations.
Collaborate and code share:
Ruby on Rails is a web development framework that facilitates collaboration and sharing of code. It follows the convention over configuration (CoC) and don't repeat yourself (DRY) principles, making it easier for developers to work together on a project. The framework's structure encourages uniformity, easing collaboration among team members.
Adaptability and flexibility:
C++ is known for its adaptability and flexibility, allowing developers to write both low-level and high-level code. It is used in a variety of applications, from system programming to game development. C++ balances performance and abstraction, making it adaptable to different domains and requirements.
Problem solving and creativity:
Example: Python (again)
Python is mentioned twice with good reason—not only one of the most popular languages for beginners to learn, but it's also used for problem-solving and creative tasks due to its clear syntax and extensive libraries. Whether it's data analysis, machine learning, or building web apps, Python's versatility allows developers to approach problem-solving in creative ways. Its readability and expressiveness contribute to a more intuitive and creative coding experience.
How do programming languages work?
Programming languages are used in all areas of the software development lifecycle (SDLC), including:
Writing the code: Everything starts with code. Developers write lines of instructions, expressing their logic and intentions in a programming language, using a text editor or an integrated development environment (IDE).
Compilation vs. interpretation: Once code is written, it undergoes either compilation or interpretation, depending on the type of programming language used Compiled languages like C++ convert the entire code into machine-readable binary before execution. Interpreted languages like Python translate code line by line during runtime.
Execution: The compiled or interpreted code is executed by the computer, carrying out the specified instructions and producing the desired output. Code review helps to improve code quality and promote discussion among team members.
Runtime errors: During execution, some instructions may get "lost in translation." Runtime errors can range from logical mistakes in the code to unforeseen issues. Debugging becomes the detective work of identifying and fixing these errors.
Debugging: Debugging is the process of finding and resolving errors in code. Developers use code review tools and techniques to trace issues, ensuring the software behaves as intended, as well as to reduce security risks.
Types of programming languages
The most common types of programming languages can be broadly grouped into two families: paradigm-based and application-based.
Paradigm-based languages are classified based on their programming paradigm, which is a fundamental style of programming. Some examples of paradigm-based languages:
- Imperative languages are designed to express the sequence of steps required to solve a problem. They describe how a program operates using statements that change a program's state. Examples include C, C++, and Java.
- Functional languages: Functional languages are designed to express computations as the evaluation of mathematical functions. They emphasize the use of functions and avoid changing state and mutable data. Examples include Haskell, Lisp, Scala, and ML.
- Markup languages: Markup languages are designed to annotate text with metadata and are used often in web development to format and present text. Examples include HTML, XML, and LaTeX.
Application-based languages are classified based on their application domain. Some examples of application-based languages are:
- Mobile app development languages are tailored for building applications on mobile platforms. Examples include Java, Kotlin, and Swift.
- Data science languages are designed for statistical analysis, machine learning, and data manipulation. Examples include Python, R, and SQL.
Popular programming languages
Programming languages may wax or wane in popularity—new languages are constantly being developed as new technologies emerge. If you're trying to decide which language to start your coding journey with or which one to use in a new project, check out the Popularity of Programming Language (PYPL) index which uses "collective wisdom" to indicate a language's current popularity by analyzing raw data from Google Trends.
Several programming languages are consistently found at the top of any popularity list:
Python: A high-level, general-purpose programming language widely used for web development, data science, artificial intelligence, and automation.
Strengths: Readability, versatility, and extensive libraries.
Weaknesses: Slower execution speed in comparison to lower-level languages.
Strengths: Ubiquitous in web development, asynchronous programming.
Weaknesses: Single-threaded nature, potential for browser compatibility issues.
Java: An object-oriented, statically typed, and compiled programming language renowned for its portability and platform independence. Java is particularly useful for apps in industries such as finance, healthcare, and entertainment and for Android, web, and enterprise application development.
Strengths: Platform independence, strong community support.
Weaknesses: Verbosity, slower execution compared to lower-level languages.
C++:a high-performance, object-oriented language that is used in system programming and scientific computing as well as used to develop operating systems, browsers, and games.
Strengths: High performance, extensive library support.
Weaknesses: Steeper learning curve, manual memory management.
C#: an object-oriented programming language that is used to develop Windows apps and games.
Strengths: Versatile and integrates efficiently with Visual Studio, .NET framework, and Microsoft Azure.
Weaknesses: Steeper learning curve and community size not as large as other popular languages like Java or Python.
Go: A statically typed, compiled programming language that is designed for building scalable and efficient software.
Strengths: Simplicity, concurrency support, and fast compilation.
Weaknesses: Smaller ecosystem compared to established languages.
How to learn programming languages
With the rise of generative AI tools like GitHub Copilot and AI code generation, the language of coding has entered our common vocabulary—no matter your chosen profession or field. While large tech companies may seem like the pinnacle of coding achievement, they represent a small fraction of programming languages' impact. Many recruitment professionals predict that soon having a basic understanding of coding will be just as common and just as important as literacy or learning a foreign language. Learning a new programming language opens up numerous opportunities for career advancement.
Here are some steps to help you decide which programming language is best for you to learn:
1. Identify your purpose
Deciding which programming language to learn depends on what you want to do. Some languages, like Python or Java have huge communities of support, are easy to learn and use, and can be used for multiple applications. Others are more niche and designed to perform very specific tasks.
2. Choose a language
Based on your goals, select a language that aligns with your purpose. Python is often recommended for beginners due to its readability and versatility. Check out the resources with GitHub Learning Pathways to explore topics relevant to your goals.
3. Online courses and tutorials
Many platforms like Codecademy, Coursera, and Udacity offer interactive courses for various programming languages. Check out the video series, Python for Beginners, from Microsoft Learn
4. Ebooks and documentations
5. Practice and play around
Apply your knowledge by working on real-world projects. Platforms like GitHub provide a welcoming space to collaborate, showcase, and ask practical language questions.
6. Engage with communities of learners
Join online forums and communities to seek help, share experiences, and connect with other learners and experts. Get to know the community and learn what other developers are doing with your chosen language.
Get Started with programming languages
To sum up, programming languages allow us to instruct computers to build platforms for games and play, connect communities physically and virtually, and even create programs that provide life-saving medical interventions.
These languages are not only used by professional developers at big tech companies or Silicon Valley. Self-taught coders across diverse fields such as science, gaming, sports, finance, and healthcare are continually learning new languages. Becoming fluent in a programming language (or several!) is an essential tool in software development. Whether you're a seasoned developer or a curious beginner, learning a new programming language will spark inventive ways to use technology and translates into "happy coding" in any language!
More resources to get started
Frequently asked questions
Why are programming languages important in software development?
Programming languages are the foundation of software development. They are used to write instructions that computers can understand and execute. Programming languages are important because they allow developers to create software that can solve complex problems, automate tasks, and improve efficiency. Different programming languages are suited for different types of app development—and these languages are just the useful tools used to envision and build their ideas.
How many programming languages are there?
That may be a trick question! New languages are being developed so quickly—it may not be possible to know an exact total number and it really depends on the source you consult. If you're asking about all languages that have ever existed, some claim the number is over 8,945 historical programming languages. If you just want to know which are in current use, the estimates are around 700 languages. However, only a handful of programming languages are widely used today.
There are certainly a lot of programming languages out there, but most software engineers build a satisfying career by mastering a few of the most popular coding languages.
What is an example of a programming language?
Some of the most popular programming languages include:
- Python: A high-level language that is easy to learn and widely used for data analysis and machine learning.
- Java: A versatile language that is used for developing mobile apps, web applications, and enterprise software.
- C++: A powerful language with applications in system programming, game development, and high-performance apps.
What is the difference between programming and coding?
Coding is the act of writing code, while programming is the process of creating the instructions that code follows.
What is a coding language? Is a coding language the same thing as a programming language?
While the terms coding and programming are often used interchangeably, they don't quite mean the same thing. Coding refers to the process of writing code in a language that both humans and machines can understand. Programming is the process of creating code instructions that tell a computer how to perform a specific task. A programming language is a formal language that specifies a set of instructions for a computer to perform specific tasks. Programming languages are used to write software programs and applications, and to control and manipulate computer systems.