Choosing a First Language to Learn

My first programming experience (during the time of the dinosaurs) involved using a light panel to enter machine code into a rudimentary computer with 3 KB (yes, that’s KB) of RAM. The output was also in light form and I needed to decode the lights to determine if my code worked right. I worked with various systems in various ways over the next several years. By the time I got to college, the first language I learned there was BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), then PC assembler, followed by Pascal. In fact, I’ve just stopped counting the number of languages I’ve learned over the years because each language has a place in my programmer’s toolbox. Of course, the question is what language you should learn first. I get asked that question quite often because there are a huge number of languages available today and no one wants to invest time in a language that’s going nowhere.

Part of the answer to the question of what to learn first is what you intend to do with the language. Each language has features that make it better at performing specific tasks. Programming languages can be split into those that are designed for a special purpose and those that are designed for a general purpose. A special purpose language, such as Structured Query Language (SQL), could be a good choice if you intend to move into database work immediately. However, for most people, a general purpose language works better because you can use it for a wider variety of tasks without bending yourself into a pretzel shape to do it.

A good place to start if you want to choose a language that’s popular enough to help you get a job afterward is the TIOBE index. It shows a listing of which languages are most popular today. As I’m writing this, Python is the most popular language on the list, but that could change tomorrow. Generally, any of the top ten languages on the list are good choices.

Of course, you want a programming language that is easy to learn. C/C++, C#, and Java are all complex languages with great flexibility. Furthermore, C/C++ and C# can help you work at a low level with the computer hardware. These languages have a steep learning curve and may not provide the best choices for a starting point. That said, if you have a line on a job that uses any of these languages, you could do worse than start here, just be prepared to burn the midnight oil learning.

The language I suggest people learn as a starting point is Python. In fact, Beginning Programming with Python For Dummies, 3rd Edition makes a point of showing you just how easy things can be. You don’t even need to invest in any special software, the book shows you how to use Google Colab so that you could conceivably learn how to program on your smartphone or TV. Others must agree with me because Python has turned into the language that the education industry turns to most often for budding programmers.

There are a lot of programming languages available today. You need to research the choice by taking into account what your personal needs are and what sort of job you want to get afterwards. You might find that something like JavaScript or Ruby will provide benefits that you can’t get with Python. Which language do you think will work best for you? Let me know your reasons at [email protected].