Categories of Programming Languages: What You Need to KnowCategories of Programming Languages: What You Need to KnowCategories of Programming Languages: What You Need to Know

The most powerful computer in the world is useless without some way to tell it what to do. Those instructions are delivered via programming languages that allow people and machines to communicate with computers, just as human language lets people communicate with each other.

The binary nature of computers requires that all direct communication be in the form of machine language, which is a series of 0s and 1s. It’s as if the computer’s “native” language has only two letters whose sequence determines the message’s meaning. Imagine trying to run every computer in the world by manually entering unique sequences of 0s and 1s that are each billions of characters long.

Programming languages were created to convert computer instructions in the form of natural language into the machine language that computers can understand. These languages take many different forms and use very different approaches to the task of instructing computers to complete various operations. Students looking for a degree program that prepares them for a career in computer science should understand the different categories of programming languages.

man looking at three computer screens with code

What Are the Major Categories of Programming Languages?

Programming languages can be categorized in many different ways. From a historical perspective, languages can be grouped into five generations:

  • Machine language is the binary system that computers understand natively.
  • Assembly language uses a basic set of symbols to represent the 0s and 1s of machine code.
  • Structured programming languages are more sophisticated than assembly language. They use a logical structure and syntax similar to human language to reduce the amount of code needed to program computer operations. These include FORTRAN, BASIC, C, Pascal, and many other popular languages.
  • Nonprocedural languages tell the computer what to do rather than how to do it. These languages are platform-specific and generally are simpler to use than structured languages. SQL is an example of a nonprocedural language used to query databases.
  • Artificial intelligence languages are applied to construct neural networks that are modeled after the structure of the human brain. Examples include Lisp, Prolog, Python, and R.

Imperative Languages vs. Declarative Languages

Programming languages can also be categorized into various paradigms or models of programming. Two dominant paradigms are imperative languages and declarative languages:

  • An imperative language specifies the exact steps the computer must take to complete a desired action.
  • declarative language specifies a desired action, but leaves the details of how to complete that action up to the computer.

Imperative languages include procedural languages, object-oriented languages, and parallel processing languages:

  • Procedural languages follow a set procedure to execute a sequence of coded instructions to achieve a desired result.
  • Object-oriented languages use sets of objects to which attributes have been assigned to describe their internal data and external hooks to other objects and entities.
  • Parallel processing languages use parallel programming or multithreading to process many streams of code simultaneously, which speeds up processing of complex code.

Among the types of declarative languages are functional languages, object-oriented languages, database languages, and dataflow languages:

  • Functional languages are based on functions that transform some input into some output without having to specify every step of the process. They are based on the concept of “immutability,” which means functions never change the original data or program state.
  • Object-oriented languages use base objects that use various methods to change the data or program states that are associated with the object. Everything an object will need is inside of, or “encapsulated” in, the object.
  • Database languages use natural language queries of databases to generate reports that help organizations make informed decisions.
  • Dataflow languages differ from the top-down, sequential approach of procedural languages by using a block diagram in which nodes are connected to represent the flow of data through the system.

Impact of Computer Programming Languages

Various categories of programming languages influence how people work, play, and otherwise interact with each other. Innovative technologies such as smartphone apps, cloud computing, and robotics were made possible by advances in how applications and other software are created.

Programming Languages for Smartphone Apps

The two dominant smartphone platforms are Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. The most popular programming languages used to create applications for smartphones are also the most popular for creating apps for other platforms:

  • JavaScript and TypeScript are scripting languages noted for being easy to learn and use, and for integrating well with other languages.
  • HTML 5 is the markup language that powers the web but is also well-suited to creating mobile apps that run on a variety of platforms.
  • Java is an object-oriented programming language that is unrelated to JavaScript. It benefits from a wealth of add-on components and libraries that are available to developers for free.
  • Python is an object-oriented language that is noted for being powerful but easy to learn and use. It features extensive support libraries that increase programmer productivity.

Programming Languages for Cloud Computing

Creating applications that run on cloud platforms requires mastering the efficiency, flexibility, and scalability of cloud-based resources. Programming languages for cloud computing focus on web servers and databases. They include SQL, XML (Extensible Markup Language), the statistical language R, and the Haskell functional language, designed specifically for distributed computing.

Programming Languages for Robotics and AI

Devising programs to power robotics and AI requires a mathematical foundation that builds on statistics and complex formulas. Many robot manufacturers create their own proprietary languages for programming the devices. However, popular languages such as Lisp, MATLAB, Python, and C++ are commonly used to create robotics and AI applications.

Master Your Programming Skills in a Computer Science Degree Program

Enrolling in an undergraduate computer science program through an accredited university can help students gain the skills and knowledge needed to effectively utilize the various categories of computer programming languages in a professional setting. Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Computer Science program features six concentrations and a curriculum designed to provide the expertise a career in computer science requires.

  • Intro to Java Programming — This core course covers such topics as data types, objects, encapsulation, classes, and inheritance in Java.
  • Computer Science I — This core course teaches the C++ language to introduce structural programming concepts such as syntax, operators, control structures, arrays, pointers, and object programming.
  • Natural Language — This course, included in the Artificial Intelligence and Data Science concentrations, examines the use of programming languages to mine and analyze data extracted from social media and other unstructured sources.
  • Computer Systems and Programming Languages — This course in the Software Development concentration explores the similarities, differences, and use cases for a range of programming languages, including Java, C#, and C++.

Laying the Foundation for a Career in Computer Technology

By offering a choice of six concentrations, Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Computer Science program gives computer science students a broad range of options as they prepare for careers in the field. In addition to Artificial Intelligence, Data Science, and Software Development, concentrations include Blockchain, Cybersecurity, and User Experience.

Discover more about how the Maryville University online Bachelor of Science in Computer Science program helps students pursue their professional goals at the leading edge of technology.

Recommended Reading

A Future in Tech: Software Development vs. Computer Science

SQL Guide for Beginner Data Scientists and Developers

Careers in Cybersecurity: Cryptography vs. Encryption


DZone, “Top 6 Programming Languages for Mobile App Development”

House of Bots, “Which Are the Best Programming Languages for Robotics?”

Medium, “Imperative vs. Declarative Programming (Procedural, Functional, and OOP)”

Mobile App Daily, “12 Best Programming Languages (Updated 2020)”

National Instruments, “Why Dataflow Programming Languages Are Ideal for Programming Parallel Hardware”

Perforce, “How to Take Advantage of Multithreaded Programming and Parallel Programming in C/C++”

RobotIQ, “What Is the Best Programming Language for Robotics?”

SH Web Commerce, “Database Programming”

TechLog360, “10 Best Cloud Programming Languages You Should Learn”

Towards Data Science, “Top Programming Languages for AI Engineers in 2020”

Towards Data Science, “Why Developers Are Falling in Love with Functional Programming”, “What Is a Programming Language and Different Types”

Be Brave

Bring us your ambition and we’ll guide you along a personalized path to a quality education that’s designed to change your life.