Computer programming languages - types & differences

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By Wendy Gittleson for Hack Reactor

If you’ve ever thought about entering a highly lucrative career in computer science, but hyperventilate over the memories about having learned (and likely forgotten) just one language in high school, breathe. Yes, there are over 300 programming languages, but you don’t need to know them all, and you’ll find that each language serves a specific purpose (or several). Compared to spoken languages, most are pretty easy to learn. Below are many of the top languages programmers are using.

What was the first computer programming language?

 Ada Lovelace and the  Analytical Engine , courtesy of  Wikipedia
Ada Lovelace and the Analytical Engine , courtesy of Wikipedia

The first programming language predates the modern computer by nearly a century. In 1883, a woman named Ada Lovelace designed her “Algorithm for the Analytical Engine.” Its purpose was to help Charles Babbage, a mathematician, engineer, and inventor, perform complex mathematical computations.

The first modern programming languages didn’t appear on the scene until the mid 20th century. The first low-level computer language arrived in 1949. Three years later, several programs falling under the umbrella term “Autocode” saw mainstream use as a computer programming language.

The oldest language that’s still in use is called Fortran (formula translation). It was developed by John Backus in 1957 to perform complex statistical, mathematical and scientific calculations. 

For more about the colorful history of software engineering, check out our software engineering timeline.

What are the programming languages in modern computer science?

C

C is one of the oldest and most versatile of computer languages. While it was originally created for Unix systems, it’s used across platforms. It’s often used in gaming. Despite the fact that C has been around since the mid-20th century and is the precursor to most other languages, C remains one of the most common programming languages.

C++

C++ is an object-oriented, intermediate-level coding language. While it has its roots in C, it is far better suited to large, complicated projects and high-performance applications. Many large corporations use C++.

C#

C#, or C Sharp, is an easy-to-learn object-oriented language, and a member of the C family. Designed by Microsoft, C# is used for mobile and desktop applications, games, websites, and database applications.

Objective-C

Developed in the 1980s, Objective-C is a general-purpose, object-oriented language that adds Smalltalk-style messaging. Apple used Objective-C for its operating systems and apps until the company introduced Swift in 2014. Apple still supports Objective-C based apps. 

Java

Java is one of the most versatile and compatible programming languages, and one of the most commonly used. Java powers the operating system behind Android phones, which dominate 88 percent of the cell phone market. Java can be used to program applications, and for small and large system development. 

JavaScript

JavaScript is often confused with Java. They’re both trademarked by Oracle, but they are very different. JavaScript is one of the most powerful, dynamic and flexible object-oriented languages out there, and is perhaps the most important to learn. It is the most popular programming language by far, and is still increasing in popularity. JavaScript is the go-to language for websites that offer animation, graphics, slideshows, and interactive forms. JavaScript is the reason web users are able to input information and interact with most websites they visit each day.

SQL

SQL is currently the most popular language for creating and querying relational databases. It was developed in 1970, when it was given the name “SEQUEL.” Its name changed to “SQL” to avoid trademark infringements. While SQL is not a programming language, procedural extensions can give it the functionality of a programming language. 

Swift

Swift is the general-purpose, multi-paradigm language used by Apple for all its operating systems, including iOS, macOS, iPadOS, WatchOS, tvOS, z/OS. It also works on Linux. Swift works with Apple’s Cocoa and Cocoa Touch frameworks on the Objective-C runtime library. 

PHP

PHP was created in 1994 specifically for web development under the name of Personal Home Page. The acronym hasn’t changed, but today it stands for Hypertext Preprocessor. PHP is still used for web development. PHP is easily embeddable into HTML codes and vice versa.

Ruby

Ruby is one of the most popular programming languages. It is a flexible, object-oriented, dynamic, general-purpose language that’s used for robust sites such as Kickstarter, Airbnb, and Hulu.

Python

Python is another programming language that is commonly used. It’s a high-level, general-purpose language used by internet powerhouses such as Google, Dropbox, Venmo, YouTube, and Yahoo Maps. 

Which is the most important computer programming language to learn first?

If there’s a single essential language for people interested in learning to code, it’s JavaScript. JavaScript adds functionality and interactivity to websites. You can use JavaScript for animated graphics, forms, photo slideshows and autocomplete text suggestions. When you interact with a website or mobile app, there’s a good chance you’re using JavaScript; it is consistently ranked among the most commonly used programming languages, according to Stack Overflow.


More importantly, JavaScript is a great foundational language. It’s intuitive and has a large community of seasoned users who are happy to offer their advice. Once you are fluent in JavaScript, learning other languages becomes much easier. Hack Reactor offers full and part-time courses, and immersive coding bootcamp training in JavaScript for students at all levels.