High-Level vs. Low-Level Programming Languages: Which Should You Learn?

Introduction

When you’re trying to figure out which programming language to learn, you’re likely to come across the terms “high-level” and “low-level.”

People talk about high-level and low-level programming languages all the time. But what exactly does that mean? And what does it mean for learning to write code? Let’s start with the definitions of each and go from there.

“Higher” and “Lower-Level” Programming Languages

Throughout this article, I’ll talk about “high-” and “low-” level language. But there are no specific qualifying criteria for either, which is why I’ll also talk about “higher” and “lower” levels.

Just keep in mind that it depends largely on your perspective. If you’re a C programmer, Java might seem quite high-level. If you’re used to Ruby, Java might seem like a low-level language. Machine Code and Low-Level LanguagesWhether a language is considered high-level or low-level (or somewhere in the middle) is all about abstraction.

Machine code has no abstraction — it contains the individual instructions passed to a computer. And because machines deal only in numbers, they’re represented in binary (though they’re sometimes written in decimal or hexadecimal notation). Here’s an example of machine code (via Wikipedia):

8B542408 83FA0077 06B80000 0000C383
FA027706 B8010000 00C353BB 01000000
B9010000 008D0419 83FA0376 078BD989
C14AEBF1 5BC3

In machine code, operations need to be specified precisely. For example, if a piece of information needs to be retrieved from memory, the machine code will need to tell the computer where in memory to find it. Writing directly in machine code is possible, but very difficult.

Low-level programming languages abstract away some of the details of machine code. This abstraction conceals machine code instructions behind more human-readable statements. Assembly languages are the second-lowest level of programming languages after machine code.

In machine code, you might write something like “10110000 01100001” — but an assembly language might simplify that to “MOV AL, 61h“. There’s still an almost one-to-one correspondence between what’s written in the assembly language and the instructions passed to the machine.

Moving into more popular programming languages, you’ll come to something like C. While not as low as an assembly language, there’s still a strong correspondence between what’s written in C and the machine code. Most operations written in C can be completed with a small number of machine code instructions.

Languages for High-Level Programming Higher-level languages encompass a wide range of abstraction, much like lower-level ones. Some languages, like as Java, nonetheless let you have a lot of say in how the machine handles memory and data when you’re running them. Ruby and Python, on the other hand, are very abstract programming languages. Because of this, you have less access to the lower-level functions, but the syntax is considerably simpler for you to comprehend and write. Class inheritance allows you to group things together so that you only need to declare them once.

Variables, objects, routines, and loops are all essential parts of high-level languages. These and other concepts help you tell the machine to do lots of things with short, concise statements. Where an assembly language has a nearly one-to-one correspondence between its commands and machine code commands, a higher-level language might be able to send dozens of commands with a single line of code.

It’s important to note that “high-level programming languages” might include everything that’s more abstracted than an assembly language. It depends on who’s discussing the topic. So when you’re talking or reading about languages, make sure you’re on the same page.

Should You Learn a Low- or High-Level Language?

This is sure to be a common question among new and aspiring programmers. Are high- or low-level programming languages better? As is the case with many programming questions, the high-level vs. low-level programming languages question isn’t so straightforward. Both types of languages have essential benefits. Low-level languages, because they require little interpretation by the computer, generally run very fast. And they give programmers a lot of control over data storage, memory, and retrieval. High-level languages, however, are intuitively more comfortable to grasp and let programmers write code much more efficiently.

These languages are also considered “safer,” more safeguards are in place that keeps coders from issuing poorly written commands that could cause damage. But they don’t give programmers as much control over low-level processes. Keeping this in mind, here are a selection of popular languages on a scale from low to high:

Of course, this is partly subjective. And it only includes a tiny cross-section of the available languages. But it should give you some idea of where the languages you’re interested in fall on the scale. What Do You Want to Do? When deciding what you want to learn, your first question should be what you want to program.

If you’re looking to write operating systems, kernels, or anything that needs to run at the absolute highest speed possible, a lower-level language might be the right choice. Much of Windows, OS X, and Linux are written in C and C-derived languages like C++ and Objective-C.

Many modern apps are written in higher-level or even domain-specific languages. Python and Ruby are especially popular for web apps, though HTML5 is becoming increasingly powerful. Languages like Swift, C#, JavaScript, and SQL all have their strengths and weaknesses. Consider Learning Both

I recently read a thread about this very question on a programming forum and came across an interesting suggestion: learn both at once. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of the types of abstractions that make the higher-level language more efficient.

Of course, learning two languages at once isn’t easy, so you might want to stagger them a bit. And choosing two similar languages might be helpful as well. Again, we’ll go back to the point I brought up before: select a language based on what you want to build. Do some research to find out which languages people in your field are using. Then use that information to pick a high- and a low-level language, and start studying them.

You’ll soon see the parallels and gain a much deeper understanding of how programming works.

Focus on Goals, Not Means

There are lots of criteria you can use to choose a programming language. High- vs. low-level is one of them. But in almost every case, the requirements you should be using is what you want to program.

Your project might benefit from a low-level language. Or it might be much more efficient in a high-level one. The key is to choose the right tool for the job. Focus on your goal, and you’ll pick the correct language every time.

Do you have experience with both high- and low-level languages? Do you prefer one over the other? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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