Programming languages are the building blocks of modern software and applications. But with so many different options available, how many programming languages are there? As we march through decades of technological development, the number only seems to be rising every year.
There are hundreds of programming languages in use today, ranging from those created to support specific tasks to general-purpose ones used in almost every application imaginable. On the other hand, there are many more languages that were used historically but are no longer in use today.
In this article, we’ll explore how many programming languages exist and talk about their classification, how many languages you should know as a developer, and which ones to start with.
What Is a Programming Language?
Programming languages are artificial languages designed to enable individuals to instruct a computer.
You see, computers can’t speak English, Spanish, or German. They can, however, speak in binary.
In turn, humans cannot speak in binary. But they can speak a multitude of other languages.
Thus, we need an intermediary medium of communication to be able to contact and instruct computers to perform certain tasks. We call them programming languages.
Programming languages are typically written in the form of code – artificial writing with syntactical and structural rules that allow a computer to execute given commands one by one.
By using programming languages, we can tell the computer what to do, when to do it, and how to perform it.
How Many Programming Languages Are There?
Online Historical Encyclopaedia of Programming Languages counts nearly 9,000 programming languages recorded in the history of programming.
That is in contrast to more than 7,000 spoken languages known in the world today. Can you imagine that there are more programming languages than there are spoken ones?
Of course, this colossal number includes all of the esoteric and highly specialized computer languages that exist in the world today. In fact, the number of popular programming languages in use is a lot smaller.
Wikipedia estimates around 700 programming languages that are active nowadays. But this is still quite a large number.
In addition to that, there are dozens of programming language frameworks and libraries for each of the popular programming languages which provide a specific set of features for developers. So, in reality, the is an enormous number of coding tools available for programmers today.
Why Are There So Many Programming Languages?
There are different coding languages that serve different purposes. Some enhance webpages with interaction, while others are used for scientific and numerical software. Additionally, some are necessary for creating games, while others are utilized for desktop software on Windows systems.
Each task may require a specific approach and at times, existing programming languages may not suffice. Moreover, different programming languages are designed for specific categories of computers.
Many people believe that computers only exist in desktops and laptops. However, your phone, car, spacecraft, airplane entertainment systems, ocean robots, and some kitchen appliances also have computers in them.
Each of these computers can take in and process different types of inputs and data. Thus, many require specialized programming languages to carry out their intended tasks.
Simply put, the purpose of programming languages is to simplify the computer’s binary language. There are several programming languages available with varying degrees of closeness to binary and human languages. Some programming languages are high-level and user-friendly, while others are low-level and have more precise computer control.
Thus, the sheer number of programming languages available is due to their diverse applications and functions. With so many different uses, there are bound to be multiple programming languages to serve those needs.
What Was the First Programming Language?
The first computer programming language was Assembly, which was developed in 1949. Assembly is a low-level language that is close to the machine code. It allows programmers to write instructions in binary and text without having to compute them by hand.
Assembly was the language of choice for many early programmers and is still used today in some applications that require very low-level control.
Subsequent programming languages were created to make coding simpler, including FORTRAN which was developed in the 1950s, COBOL (1959), and the first version of BASIC (1964).
It is of note that while Assembly is often accepted as the first actual programming language, Ada Lovelace wrote an algorithm for a mechanical computer more than a century prior to that, which is considered by many historians as the first computer program.
5 Types of Programming Languages
Computer programming languages are divided into five major categories: procedural, functional, object-oriented, scripting, and logic.
Procedural languages are a series of steps and commands that must be followed in order. They are typically used for software that requires a specific workflow, such as data entry and number crunching. FORTRAN and COBOL are examples of procedural programming languages.
Functional languages are based on mathematical functions and are used for defining logical operations. Lisp, Haskell, and Erlang are examples of functional programming languages.
Object-oriented languages focus on the data that is being manipulated, rather than the steps required to manipulate it. They are great for creating software with complex user interfaces, such as games and other graphical applications. C++ and Java are well-known examples of object-oriented programming languages.
Finally, logic languages are used for artificial intelligence and machine learning applications. Prolog and Clojure are two examples of logic programming languages.
High-Level and Low-Level Computer Languages
Another important distinction to make is between high-level and low-level programming languages. High-level languages are much more user-friendly, as they resemble human language.
If we return to our spoken language (e.g. English) vs. machine language (binary) metaphor, high-level programming languages are the ones closest to human language. In other words, your code will be easily read and understood by other human beings.
On the other hand, low-level programming languages are the ones closest to machine language. They mostly consist of numbers (often binary) and partially have human commands as well.
Low-level programming languages provide a direct interface with the machine hardware. They are more difficult to write, but they allow us to manage memory, access hardware components, and modify the instruction set used by the processor. Assembly is an example of a low-level programming language.
Compiled vs. Interpreted Languages
The last distinction we will make is between compiled and interpreted programming languages. A compiled language is one in which the code you write must be converted into binary using a compiler before it is executed. C and C++ are both examples of compiled languages.
Both compiled and interpreted languages have their own strengths and weaknesses. Compiled languages are usually faster, but interpreted languages offer more flexibility.
The Most Popular Programming Languages
What are the most popular programming languages today? To answer this question, we get help from objective ranking systems that place programming languages in order of popularity.
A few such indices include IEEE Spectrum, PYPL (PopularitY of Programming Language), and RedMonk Programming Language Rankings.
To learn more about the rankings indices and the most commonly used programming languages, take a look at our article about the most popular programming languages in the world.
How Many Programming Languages Should a Developer Know?
So how many programming languages should you know to become a software developer? Well, the average number of programming languages known well by a developer is three to five.
However, you may be surprised that you can get away with only knowing one or two really well. That is often all you need to get a well-paying developer job.
Of course, the number of languages you need to know depends on what type of development work you do.
If you specialize in mobile app development, then Java and Swift are must-haves.
If you specialize in game development, then C++ and other 3D engine programming languages are what you should learn.
The bottom line is that the number of programming languages you should learn depends on your specialization. Pick a few that are important to your field, and invest your time in learning them well. That way, you will be a valuable asset to any team or company.
How Long Does It Take to Learn a Programming Language?
Not every programming language is created equal. Some are easier to learn, and others are tougher. Thus, it takes varying duration of time to learn a programming language depending on its complexity.
For example, it takes around 5 months to learn a language like Python. It may take longer if you are starting from scratch, but experienced developers can get up to speed in about 5 months.
On the other hand, a language like C++ or Java may take around 1-2 years to learn. That’s because these languages are more complex, and require a deep understanding to be able to use them effectively.
On average, it takes 1-2 months to get the basics of a programming language and 6-12 months to get comfortable using it professionally. But the amount of time it takes really depends on your level of expertise and the complexity of the language.
We’ve reached the end of our journey together exploring the world of programming languages. We have covered a lot of ground on topics such as what a programming language is, how many programming languages are in existence, why so many exist, what the first one was, various categories of computer languages, and even which are gaining popularity today.
There are so many unbelievable possibilities and useful applications made possible by these languages. It can admittedly be daunting to pick one to begin learning but do not feel intimidated.
Put time and effort learning into learning a language of your choice and soon you will understand how to create truly incredible things.
So choose your adventure today – pick a programming language and start learning it! It could open up amazing new opportunities in your life that would otherwise never materialize if you don’t take the initiative. Happy coding!
Elmar Mammadov is a software developer, tech startup founder, and computer science career specialist. He is the founder of CS Careerline and a true career changer who has previously pursued careers in medicine and neuroscience.
Due to his interest in programming and years of past personal experience in coding, he decided to break into the tech industry by attending a Master’s in Computer Science for career changers at University of Pennsylvania. Elmar passionately writes and coaches about breaking into the tech industry and computer science in general.