High-Level vs. Low-Level Programming Languages, Explained

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Programming languages are separated into two classes. They can be either high-level languages or low-level languages. Each type of programming language has its own purpose. Learning the difference between the two is an important step to figuring out which one to use.

So, what exactly is the difference between them? And what does it mean for learning to write code? Let’s start with the definitions of each, and learn more about which language is right for you.

High-Level and Low-Level Programming Languages

There are a few characteristics that define high-level and low-level programming languages. Here are some rules that are generally followed to define the two.

High-level languages:

  • Feature abstraction
  • Are closer to human languages, and are more readable
  • Do not deal with memory management
  • Examples include: Java, Python, Ruby, and C#

Low-level languages:

  • Do not feature abstraction
  • Are readable by machines, and are not close to human language
  • Involve memory management
  • Examples include assembly language and machine code

If you’ve ever coded in C or C++, you might realize these languages float around in a gray area. These languages allow you to manage memory, but they feature some abstraction.

Low-Level Languages

Whether a language is high-level or low-level has to do with abstraction, and how close to the operating system the language works. Low-level languages are closer to the computer system. One of the most common low-level languages is machine code.

Machine code has no abstraction—it contains the individual instructions passed to a computer. Machines only understand bytes, they’re represented in binary (though they’re sometimes written in decimal or hexadecimal notation).

Here’s some machine code:

 169 1 160 0 153 0 128 153 0 129 153 130 153 0 131 200 208 241 96

Could you read this code and understand what the script might do? The computer knows, but it’s not close to human language.

When you write machine code you need to specify clear directions. For example, if a piece of information needs to be retrieved from memory, the machine code will need to tell the computer where to find it. Machine code is by far the fastest code to write, as well as the most difficult to create programs with.

Assembly language is another low-level language that is a step above machine code. Assembly language features very small amounts of abstraction but is similar to machine code. It’s less common than a language like C but is a step above machine code.

binary code
Image Credit: extradeda/Depositphotos

The C Programming language

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is a popular choice for coders. While not as low as an assembly language, C hovers close to machine code. Most operations written in C can work with a small number of machine code instructions.

High-Level Programming Languages

High-level languages feature abstraction. These languages are very readable and are much easier to use as a result. Here is a sample of Python code that is much easier to decipher than a piece of machine code:

def addNumbers(Num1,Num2):
    return Num1 + Num2

>> 9

It’s a simple function that takes two numbers and returns the result. You know exactly what you’re getting, you can read it like a book. You also don’t have to manage memory to run this program on your computer.

Variables, objects, routines, and loops are all important parts of high-level languages. This is the abstraction that makes them easy to use.

Assembly language has a nearly one-to-one correspondence between its commands and machine code commands. A higher-level language is able to send dozens of commands with a single line of code.

Each high-level language has its own way of writing syntax, and you might find that some are easier to read than others.

Which Language Should You Learn?

It’s a common question among new programmers. Are high or low-level programming languages better? As is the case with many programming questions, there isn’t one correct answer.

Both languages have important benefits. Low-level languages require very little interpretation by the computer. This makes machine code incredibly fast compared to other programming languages

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. They give programmers a lot of control over data storage, memory, computer hardware.

You might use these languages to write a software kernel or driver software. You wouldn’t use it to write web apps or games.

High-level languages are easier to grasp. They let programmers write code more efficiently. These languages are also considered to be safer. They have more safeguards to keep coders from issuing commands that could damage a computer.

They don’t give programmers as much control over low-level processes, and rarely get involved with memory allocation.

A list of popular high-level languages include:

  • Java
  • C#
  • Go
  • Scala
  • JavaScript
  • Python
  • Ruby
  • SQL

These languages are good for writing software programs, web apps, and mobile apps.

What Do You Want to Build?

Your first question should be: what do I want to program?

If you’re looking to write operating systems, kernels, or anything that needs to run at a high-speed then a lower-level language might be a good choice. Much of Windows, macOS, and Linux are written in C and C-derived languages like C++ and Objective-C.

Many modern apps are written in higher-level or domain-specific languages. Python and Ruby are popular web programming languages to use

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. Languages like Swift, C#, JavaScript, and SQL all have their own purpose. C# is a great multi-purpose language, JavaScript is the backbone of web coding, and SQL is great for database programming.

The Benefits of Learning Both

Here’s an interesting idea: learn both at once. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of abstractions, and how they make higher-level languages more efficient. You also can learn a lot about computer architecture and what makes your computer run.

Of course, learning two languages at once isn’t easy, so you might want to stagger them.

Choose a language based on what you want to build. Do some research to find out which languages are common in your career field of choice. Then use that information to pick a language and start studying.

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

Becoming a Better Programmer

Don’t be overwhelmed by all the different criteria when picking a programming language. When trying to choose between high-level and low-level languages, think about what best interests you. In almost every case, you should gravitate towards the projects that interest you.

If you want to move towards lower-level languages you might consider learning more about C. C is a great language to learn, here’s a great beginner project in C to get you started. Perhaps you’re more interested in coding with a high-level language? Python is a great multi-purpose language with a lot to offer. You can do a lot of great projects like building social media bots for Instagram and Reddit using Python

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. Choose a language and get coding!

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