Programming Technology Explained

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

Dann Albright 09-11-2017

When you’re trying to figure out which programming language to learn 6 Easiest Programming Languages to Learn for Beginners Learning to program is about finding the right language just as much as it's about the edification process. Here are the top six easiest programming languages for beginners. Read More , 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 languages. But there’s 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 Languages

Whether 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

In machine code, operations need to be specified exactly. 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 add a bit of abstraction to the machine code. This abstraction hides specific machine code instructions behind declarations that are more human readable. Assembly languages are the lowest-level languages next to 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.

binary code
Image Credit: extradeda/Depositphotos

Moving into more popular programming languages, you’ll come to something like C Characteristics of C Programming That Make It Unique (And Better) The C programming language is the mother of all modern programming languages. Almost every language in use today includes several features which first appeared in the C language. Read More . 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.

High-Level Programming Languages

Just like lower-level languages, higher-level ones cover a broad spectrum of abstraction. Some, like Java (which you could argue is actually a mid-level programming language), still give you a lot of control over how the computer manages memory and data.

Others, like Ruby and Python, are very abstract. They give you less access to those lower-level functions, but the syntax is much easier to read and write. You can group things together in classes, which inherit characteristics so you only have to declare them once.

javascript code
Image Credit: micrologia/Depositphotos

Variables, objects, routines, and loops are all important 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 important benefits. Low-level languages, because they require little interpretation by the computer, generally run very fast Why Are Some Programming Languages Faster Than Others? There are numerous programming languages out there. They all have individual quirks, used for different things. But what makes one programming language faster than another? Read More . And they give programmers a lot of control over data storage, memory, and retrieval.

High-level languages, however, are intuitively easier to grasp, and let programmers write code much more efficiently. These languages are also considered to be “safer,” as there are more safeguards in place that keep 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:

  • C
  • C++
  • Java
  • C#
  • Perl
  • Lisp
  • JavaScript
  • Python
  • Ruby
  • SQL

Of course, this is partly subjective. And it only includes a tiny cross-section of the languages that are available.

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 a good 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 How to Choose the Right Web Programming Language to Use Why should certain languages be chosen over others in any given scenario? This article will provide a checklist of questions the programmer should ask in order to choose which language to use. Read More , though HTML5 is becoming increasingly powerful. Languages like Swift, C#, JavaScript, and SQL all have their own 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 7 Useful Tricks for Mastering a New Programming Language It's okay to be overwhelmed when you are learning to code. You'll probably forget things as quickly as you learn them. These tips can help you to better retain all that new information. Read More , so you might want to stagger them a bit. And choosing two languages that are similar might be helpful as well.

Again, we’ll go back to the point I brought up before: choose 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 you’ll 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 criteria 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 right 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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  1. Hildy J
    November 9, 2017 at 6:57 pm

    Let me second your advice to set a goal regarding what you want to program and add where you want to work - if you want to go into consulting, knowing more than one language can be an asset.

    If you are going to learn two (or more) languages, I'd advise doing them sequentially and starting at the bottom - a low level language will help you be a better high level language programmer but not vice versa.

  2. dragonmouth
    November 9, 2017 at 5:37 pm

    I spent my programming career in the corporate world before Internet became The Thing, writing business-type applications. I programmed in many languages, both compiled and interpreted, from Assembler to COBOL. I liked all of them with the exception of Visual Basic. VB was like building something from Lego blocks; very simplistic and limited scope.