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What Is a Programming Language?

Trent Fowler - May 23, 2020


If you’re as excited to start learning your first programming language as I was, you may not have stopped to ask yourself: ‘what is a programming language?’ This is understandable, what with programming being an exciting on-ramp to some of the best possible careers and all.

But this is an important question to answer for yourself. As you deepen in your theoretical knowledge, you’ll eventually come to a point when you’ll want to clearly understand what is a programming language and what are programming languages used for.

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A Definition of Programming Languages

Man staring at a computer.
This guy should’ve checked Career Karma before wandering around the Internet in search of answers.

In simple terms, a programming language is a way of providing instructions to a computer .

While computers are capable of doing remarkable things like simulating the global climate system, diagnosing cancer, and processing speech, it’s important to remember that all this comes from simple rules. On a hardware level, a computer is just flipping little switches called ‘transistors’ on and off in different patterns.

Coding languages let you tell the computer what patterns to use without you having to directly work in the 1s and 0s that computers understand. Humans aren’t very good at thinking in binary, so early computer programmers gave us programming languages instead.

You can think of a language like Python as sitting between English and binary. Ideally we’d just tell a computer what we want in words. But we’re not there yet, so instead of going all the way down to the hardware we meet the computer in the middle by using a tool that is more strict than a human language but easier to use than a machine language.

Where Are Programming Languages Used?

Man on a concrete wall
Programming languages can be used in many places, like leaning out of a helicopter or while undergoing foot surgery. For the record, I don’t recommend either.

Programming languages are used wherever computers are used. This is likely more places than you may be imagining.

We tend to think of computers as being the devices that sit on our laps and let us browse Reddit. But your phone is a computer. Your car has a computer system in it, as do spacecraft, the inflight entertainment systems on airplanes, ocean-going robots, some kitchen appliances, and even this voluntary milking machine invented by Swedish farmers.

Now Linux can even milk cows!

All these use cases require different coding languages which are good at different things. The languages used for embedded hardware systems sacrifice ease of use for being really compact and efficient, for example.

What Are Programming Languages Used For?

Grayscale of a person using a macbook
Programming languages are used all over the place.

In addition to the answers given in the opening, I’d like to elaborate by saying that programming languages are being used for more and more things all the time.

Venus, a software engineer at Rockbot

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Venus, Software Engineer at Rockbot

Coding languages are being used to build robots that care for the elderly, chatbots that can handle customer support, machine learning systems able to detect landmines, plan crops, solve protein folding problems, generate text, and recognize faces.

With all the applications, use cases, learning resources, and interesting projects, there’s never been a better time to learn a programming language.

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Trent Fowler

About the author: Trent Fowler is a data scientist and writer with an interest in machine learning, blockchain technologies, and futurism.

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