If you're fresh to computer science, it's easy to get lost in the distinction between low-level, medium-level, and high-level programming languages. In this article, we'll describe the differences between each level and tell you how they influence the learning experience.
Low-level programming languagesLow-level programming languages are the ones that provide little or no abstraction from a computer's hardware architecture. They are often described as "close to the hardware" languages designed to interact closely with the computer's hardware. Therefore, they are often specific to a particular computer architecture.
Advantages of low-level programming languages:
- High efficiency as programs written in low-level languages are typically more efficient regarding execution speed and memory usage.
- Direct hardware interaction — programmers control entirely hardware components, registers, and memory. Hence, programmers also have a high level of control over program behavior.
- Small code size, which can be crucial in environments with limited storage.
Disadvantages of low-level programming languages:
- Hard learning curve — low-level languages require a deep understanding of the hardware architecture, making learning rather challenging.
- Time-consuming development — writing programs in low-level languages often requires more time and effort than in high-level languages.
- Lack of flexibility. As mentioned, programs written in low-level languages are often specific to a particular architecture, making it difficult to transfer them to different platforms.
- High chance of errors. Since low-level languages provide direct access to memory and hardware, a higher risk of programming errors can lead to system crashes.
Examples of low-level programming languages:
- Machine code. This is the lowest level of programming language and consists of binary code that directly represents instructions executed by the CPU.
- Assembly language. Assembly languages are specific to a particular CPU architecture and provide a symbolic representation of machine code instructions. For example, Intel processors require x86 Assembly.
- C: While C was considered a high-level language a few decades ago, it now possesses low-level features like manual memory management and direct manipulation of hardware. It also lacks a sizeable runtime system and basically supports only scalar operations.
Medium-level programming languagesMedium-level programming languages, also called mid-level languages, strike a balance between the low-level control of hardware provided by assembly/machine code and the high-level abstractions. These languages provide a level of abstraction that makes them more user-friendly than low-level languages while allowing for reasonable control over hardware resources.
Advantages of medium-level programming languages:
- Sufficient level of abstraction. Mid-level languages provide a higher abstraction level than low-level languages so that programmers can create more intuitive and readable code.
- Increased portability. Programs written in mid-level languages are more portable than those written in low-level languages. Still, they may call for some platform-specific adjustments.
- Productivity. Mid-level languages are more user-friendly, which can lead to increased developers' productivity.
- Versatility. Mid-level languages are suitable for a wide range of apps.
Disadvantages of medium-level programming languages:
- Steep learning curve. While mid-level programming languages are generally easier to learn than low-level ones, they may still be challenging, especially for beginners.
- Low control. Mid-level languages don't typically provide the same control over hardware as low-level languages do.
- Dependency on libraries. Medium-level languages often rely on libraries for specific functionalities.
Examples of medium-level programming languages:
- Dialects of C that allow raw pointers. Technically, C++ can be considered as medium-level programming language as well.
- The Wirth family of languages. Such languages as Pascal, Modula2, and Oberon.
High-level programming languagesHigh-level programming languages are designed to be as user-friendly as possible. They provide a high level of abstraction from the computer's hardware architecture and are characterized by their increased simplicity and readability. High-level languages allow developers to write programs using a syntax close to natural language, removing much of the hassle associated with low-level programming. They are particularly great for apps where development speed, maintainability, and ease of use are more critical than low-level control and performance optimizations.
Advantages of high-level programming languages:
- Ease of learning and use. High-level languages often feature English-like syntax, making them easier for beginners to learn and use.
- Enhanced productivity. No wonder programming in high-level languages is faster and more efficient than low-level/mid-level languages.
- Extra portability. Programs written in high-level languages are often portable across different platforms with little or no modification.
- Quick development. High-level languages often include features like dynamic typing, automatic memory management (garbage collection), and built-in libraries to facilitate the development process for programmers.
- No complex operations. High-level languages lack tricky operations, such as memory management and hardware-specific details. This allows developers to focus on solving problems at a higher level.
Disadvantages of high-level programming languages:
- Less сontrol over hardware. High-level programming languages abstract many hardware details and give programmers less control over the computer's resources.
- High resource consumption. Applications written in high-level languages may consume many system resources regarding memory and processing power.
- Dependency on libraries and frameworks. High-level languages often rely on libraries and frameworks for various functionalities.
How does the level of programming language influence the learning path?The higher the language, the less tricky the learning path. As you might have already guessed, the programming language level directly impacts the complexity of learning. Low-level languages are the hardest to learn because of their proximity to machine architecture. Programmers must understand the computer's hardware details, memory management, and intricate instruction sets. This can be rather challenging for beginners. In their turn, medium-level languages strike a balance between low-level and high-level languages. While they provide some abstractions, they still require an understanding of memory management, pointers, and closer attention to details compared to high-level languages. High-level programming languages are designed to be as user-friendly as possible, which makes them the easiest to learn. They have an English-like syntax and provide a high level of abstraction. This lets developers focus on problem-solving rather than worrying about low-level implementation details. This makes them ideal for beginners.
What programming languages are on the rise right now?Of course, the popularity and relevance of programming languages can shift over time. However, some languages remain popular and widely used for quite a long time. As of PYPL ranking of September 2023, the top 5 look as follows: