Thinking about learning to code but not sure where to start? One of the most common questions we hear is, “Which programming language should I learn first?”
The answer is: It depends. As Web Developer Pat DePuydt explains in the video below, the tech industry changes fast. And with over 600 possible languages to choose from, it can feel daunting to find the one that best suits your needs.
Still, it basically comes down to what you're looking to achieve. Here, we’ll explore some of the most popular languages (and their uses) so that you'll have a better idea of which one is right for you.
But, before we dive into different programming languages, let's first address some common questions.
What are programming languages?
Programming languages are the tools we use to write instructions for computers to follow. Computers think in binary, and programming languages help us translate 1s and 0s into code that humans can understand.
Programmers are the ambassadors between the worlds of humans and computers, and programming languages are the tools they use to tell computers what to do.
Is it possible to choose the “wrong” programming language?
New developers often hesitate before picking up a programming language, fearing they'll waste time and energy learning something they'll never use. But the truth is, there's really no such thing as picking the “wrong” language. No matter which language you choose, you'll still be learning valuable skills.
Programming languages may look different on the surface, but they have a lot in common. They share similar patterns and structures, and by learning one language, you’ll be introduced to key coding concepts that’ll help you learn other languages in the future. Once you pick up your first programming language — no matter which you choose — it’ll be easier to pick others up.
Plus, it’s not uncommon for developers to move between different languages throughout their careers as they're asked to solve different sorts of problems. You’re definitely not locked into using the first programming language you choose. So don’t worry too much about focusing on whether you’re learning the “best” programming language. Instead, focus on gaining that foundational knowledge with whatever language you choose.
What programming language should I learn?
Now that you’ve got some background, it’s time to decide what programming language you should choose. There are a couple of routes you can go with making this decision. The first is to choose a programming language based on your goal, and the second is to choose a programming language based on what’s the most in-demand or popular in the industry.
Finding the best programming language for your goals
Why do you want to learn a programming language? Are you programming just for fun? Curious about what coding is like? Trying to build something specific or get a new job? Answering this question is a great way to get an idea of what language might be best to start with.
If you’re at the very beginning of your coding journey, you'll want to learn basic markup languages like HTML and CSS to get your foot in the door. These two are essential to front-end web development and can be used to structure and design attractive web pages with interactive elements.
Data science and analysis
If you’re looking to make a career transition or get a new job, talk to people in the industry you’re interested in. If you’re interested in mobile development, web design, data science, IT, A.I., or another industry, reach out to folks in those communities and ask what a typical day looks like for them. What languages do they use? Which do they recommend starting with?
Popular programming languages for beginners
Python is known as a beginner-friendly language because of its high-level, readable syntax. Unlike many older, low-level languages Python is very concise and familiar: Code statements are intuitive and read much more like conventionally written instructions.
R is another popular first language, especially in academia, due to its strengths in scientific and statistical computing. Like Python, it has a very large community of users and developers that provide a rich ecosystem of libraries and learning resources that are particularly useful for new programmers.
Popular programming languages to choose from
If you’re considering a career in coding, stick to mainstream languages when you’re getting started. They generate the highest demand in the tech industry, with most job openings listing them as required skills for entry-level developers.
Here’s a list of some of the most popular programming languages and what they’re used for:
In a recent Stack Overflow survey of thousands of developers around the world, 22.55% listed C++ as their favorite programming language. It’s a powerful, all-purpose programming language used for building applications with faster performance and far more effective scalability. In fact, the basic foundation of most Windows software was written in C++.
C++ is ideal for managing resource-heavy applications, like web browsers, operating systems, desktop apps, cloud computing, and even video games. It’s used in a variety of industries, including VR, robotics, software and game development, and scientific computing. The key features of this language are its cross-platform hardware support and adaptability to a changing internal environment.
C# is Microsoft’s programming language. Being one of the most popular languages, with 27.98% of developers naming it as their favorite in Stack Overflow’s survey, it has since been adopted into the Windows, Linux, and iOS and Android platforms. C# is also known for having a huge collection of libraries and frameworks.
It’s often the language of choice for game developers and mobile app creators, though it’s also used in enterprise software like Azure and IoT. If you’re interested in game design, you’ll most likely encounter C# when building assets in the Unity engine for a new game.
Ruby is a general-purpose, dynamic programming language, most popularly implemented with the Ruby on Rails (Rails) framework. Only 6.05% of surveyed developers listed it as their favorite, but it provides developers with cutting-edge features, all thanks to its concise syntax and object-oriented support.
Although Ruby is a back-end language, it’s designed to be readable by people instead of just machines, and it’s turned into a staple language used by companies like Twitter, Airbnb, and GitHub.
Python is another general-purpose programming language. It plays an important part in data science, machine learning, and web development. You can even use it to program desktop applications. This versatility is one of the reasons why it’s ranked as the fourth most popular programming language in the survey linked above.
Python has a low barrier to entry. It’s simple but elegant, with many real-world applications — one notable example being artificial intelligence. As seen in web scraping, Python has the capability to extract a large amount of data.
R is another programming language used for data analysis and visualization. It has statistical computing capabilities that make it a helpful tool for data scientists and business analysts. R serves a specific niche, but it’s quite popular in the data science industry, being 4.66% of developers’ favorite language.
SQL (pronounced "sequel") is a data-driven programming language. Its purpose is to store information into separate data sets so you can retrieve them to generate accurate reports based on your search query. SQL is an absolute must for any aspiring Data Scientist, given that data science uses relational databases. But, it’s not the best language for building apps from scratch.
SQL is the third most popular programming language in Stack Overflow’s survey, and it’s even helpful for non-technical careers. SQL also allows marketers to translate and analyze business data to understand how well certain products perform on the market or which sales funnels are converting leads into customers.
More resources for getting started
If you’re still unsure about which programming language to learn first, we’ve got a couple more tools to help you out.The first is our sorting quiz! Take the quiz to find out which language is right for you. It’s kind of like a personality test, but for programming. Basically, it determines what language best matches your approach to problem-solving.
You can also check out our Code Foundations skill path. Code Foundations will introduce you to the world of code, explain the paths of web development, data science, and computer science, and help you make an educated decision about which path (and language) is right for you.