Whether you’re an experienced developer or just starting out, adding a new programming language to your list of skills can be a powerful way to stand out in a competitive job market. Being eager and willing to learn is important, but knowing which programming language to choose can feel overwhelming and confusing.
Keep reading to gain a better understanding of the most popular programming languages, their average annual salaries, and a brief overview of their strengths.
Types of programming languages
When evaluating programming languages, it’s important to understand that each language has its own features, frameworks, and style. Because classifying programming languages can be somewhat subjective, think of each type as a philosophy instead of a strict definition.
Procedural programming languages work through code in a logical and structured order using procedures, modules, and procedure calls. Though some scenarios are best handled by the top-down simplicity of procedural programming, importance is placed on operation over data, which makes it difficult to relate with real-world solutions.
Object-oriented programming is built using objects that contain data, attributes, properties, and methods. By employing four fundamental concepts—inheritance, encapsulation, polymorphism, and data abstraction—object-oriented programming languages increase code reuse, provide data security, and make it easier to maintain existing applications.
Functional programming focuses on the evaluation of expressions, placing priority on results instead of processes. Unit testing and debugging make functional programming good for increasing developer productivity, but the learning curve isn’t easy for beginners and the code can be hard to maintain.
Scripting programming languages deliver instructions that are interpreted individually, at run time, instead of being compiled ahead of time. The specific features and functionality will depend on the run time environment being used, but the strengths remain the same: ease of learning, rapid development, and quick debugging.
Logic programming languages contain familiar-looking, easy-to-read, statements detailing what needs to be accomplished. By taking away the need to understand how tasks are accomplished, developers can focus on the knowledge and rules that will lead to the end results.
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Most popular programming languages
Described as a general-purpose language, Python can read and write files and directories, create GUIs and APIs, power web development frameworks, and more. With simple syntax and a large developer community to lean on, Python is considered one of the easiest programming languages to learn.
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Java is a powerful programming language with platform independence and version resilience—code that was written in Java decades ago is likely to run without issue today. Whether being used for web applications, Android apps, desktop software, or scientific applications, Java is one of the most diverse programming languages in use today.
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SQL is the ideal companion programming language for all others, and arguably the most important in this data-driven world. Short for Structured Query Language, SQL provides the means to create, populate, and manage databases.
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HTML is the most basic programming language, used in web design to deliver browser content. Basic programming tasks are easy to execute with HTML, but skilled programmers know how to use this language to create accessible, attractive, and cross-browser/cross-platform compatible content.
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CSS is the fresh coat of paint and new window dressing of the programming world, but it is quickly becoming among the most important languages. Designed to make front-end layouts beautiful and functional, CSS contributes to the usability and accessibility of web-based applications.
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C# (pronounced “C Sharp”) is part of Microsoft’s .NET platform. Commonly used when developing desktop applications, C# is also known for being the language behind the Unity game engine.
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Though some developers choose to use Objective-C, Swift is the programming language recommended for those looking to create applications for iOS, iPadOS, macOS, tvOS, and watchOS. Apple created Swift as a safe, fast, and fun means to create clean and consistent code.
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C++ is one of the most powerful, versatile, and sophisticated object-oriented programming languages. The strength of C++ is seen when powering processor- and graphics-heavy software like the Unreal Engine and gaming consoles, including Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch.
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PHP is one of the most widely utilized general-purpose scripting languages available. PHP is platform independent, supports all of the major web servers, and has a tremendous library of open-source software available to build on. These include content management systems (CMS) and eCommerce platforms.
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Though they may not be the most popular, there are a few programming languages that are still used by many programmers:
Used by scientists and engineers, MATLAB is a proprietary programming language developed by MathWorks that is designed to analyze data and create algorithms. Though MATLAB is used most often by universities, it has been gaining traction in the image processing industry.
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R excels at manipulating and graphing statistical data and is beloved by researchers.
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Ruby is a popular open-source programming language used most often in web development, data analysis, and prototyping. It is often regarded as a popular programming language for beginners.
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How to choose a programming language
Deciding which programming language to learn can feel overwhelming and confusing. The following criteria may help determine which programming language is the best to learn or use for a specific project.
- Learning curve: Consider learning a language that builds on existing skills. For those brand new to software development, it can help to know that the first language is always the hardest to learn, so it’s a good idea to start with something manageable.
- Development speed: Successful programming isn’t just about how quickly programmers can create code. Be sure to factor in debugging time, testing time, and ongoing maintenance tasks.
- Look for a community: Peer support can make a huge difference in the learning process. Being able to ask questions, look through past support requests, and flip through documentation is very valuable.
- Understand compliance and security requirements: Some industries require data security and secure coding practices that may not be available with all programming languages.
- Have a practice project in mind: The best way to learn a language is to put code into action and create something. Even if it’s just a passion project, nothing prepares a developer better than practical experience.
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