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How Many Programming Languages Should You Know?

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There are hundreds of programming languages, from C++ to Python. Whether you are just getting started in Computer Science or want to boost your skill set, you may wonder, “How many programming languages should I know?”

This all-too-common question doesn’t have just a single answer. Instead, there are benefits that make it worthwhile to learn different programming languages, depending on your specific goals.

We’re going to dive into everything you need to know about becoming a polyglot programmer, as well as how to strategically add new languages to your repertoire.

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Some Background on the Changing Coding Environment

Firstly, it’s important to note that new programming languages are introduced into the world yearly to solve specific problems. As the field of Computer Science expands and the need for programmers balloons, the most sought-after coders are those who are adaptable to such changes.

Technology has never and will never remain constant. At the heart of all technology is programming languages. Back in the day, a programmer could do many jobs with just one coding language. At that time, having a specialization in just one language would set you apart and be able to land you a job.

But the times have changed.

Whether you work as a freelancer or for a specific company, you’ll likely need to know a variety of languages to perform your daily tasks. That’s why it’s so important to know more than one language.

What is a Polyglot Programmer?

A polyglot programmer is a person who knows multiple programming languages. Similarly, a polyglot program is one that is written with multiple coding languages.

Senior developers are expected to be polyglot programmers. If you’re trying to make it to the top of the field, this has basically become mandatory.

For example, the front-end of a web app will require a developer to know HTML and CSS. The same program’s back-end could also be written in the same language, but could call on knowledge of SQL for database queries. Therefore, knowing various languages helps a senior developer in being able to solve problems. It also opens the door to being able to provide more optimal alternatives when developing a project.

A Rule of Thumb: When to Learn New Languages

When is the right time to learn new languages and is it good to learn multiple programming languages at once?

Most programmers would agree that it makes sense to learn as many languages as you can when you first begin your educational journey. If you enroll in formal education and are in a Computer Science program, then it is a great time to learn as much as you can because you have resources at your disposal.

Even if you’re learning on your own, you can master one language and understand the foundational elements of coding.

Then, after learning as many programming languages as you can from the get go, you should try to add one language per year every year thereafter.

You may be tempted to only add new and emerging programming languages to your arsenal, but the truth is that some programs and apps still leverage older languages. For example, Apple’s iOS and OS X primarily used Objective C, which was first developed in 1980. That’s why it’s important to fully immerse yourself within the history and environment of coding so you can wisely choose the languages you learn.

How Many Programming Languages Should I Know?

In my experience, all programmers should aim to know at least 3 programming languages.

If you’re only learning new languages on the surface, it won’t prove to be worth your time. Every programmer has the power to learn as many coding languages as they so desire, but it’s a best practice that when learning a new language, you:

  • Understand its guiding principles
  • Know the limitations of the language
  • Grasp the language’s strengths
  • Have a deep knowledge of its applications

The 5 Programming Languages That Developers Should Know

The language you apply in any given coding environment depends on what you are trying to accomplish. There are languages that have been developed for specific purposes. As such, it pays to understand the basic applications of popular programming languages.

Most developers will agree that the following five languages are foundational to most current programming challenges. Let’s take a look:

  • C/C++: Almost everyone who becomes a programmer should or will eventually know C or C++. C is the preferred language for system programming. This general-purpose programming language is a good way to understand how computers work, from storing to retrieving information. As a foundational language, it helps to make learning other languages easier.
  • Java: For the past two decades, Java has held its position as one of the most popular coding languages. It’s mostly used for server-side application development, as well as for mobile games and applications. The basis of the language was founded on the principle of “Write Once, Run Anywhere” and as time has gone on, this mantra has rung true. When you land any job that has Android apps, you’ll undoubtedly be working in Java.
  • Python: While knowing Java remains crucial, it’s important to realize that Python has replaced Java in most academic settings. Almost every course in Computer Science will focus on Python. This is because it’s used for many websites and is what powers artificial intelligence, data science, and machine learning. Many organizations are switching over to work in Python. For up-and-coming programmers who are unsure whether to learn Java or Python first, take a look at this infographic that displays the uses side-by-side.
  • Javascript: Javascript sits at the top of the list of the most widely-used languages. It’s mostly utilized to build websites and web applications. Both front-end and back-end developers utilize this language.
  • Ruby: Ruby is an open-source programming language that continues to gain popularity. It is mainly used for website building. One of Ruby’s greatest benefits is that many find it easy to learn because it’s most similar to the English language. Unlike Python, which has just one solution for every problem, Ruby offers several approaches to a single problem.

Benefits of Knowing Various Languages

As alluded to before, any programmer who wants to pave their path in the industry will need to be a polyglot programmer.

There are a multitude of benefits to knowing more than one language, including:

  • Flexibility: With more languages comes more flexibility. For example, if you want to be a freelancer, then your list of potential clients will expand in tandem with the languages you know. Many clients will already have their programming language set, so it helps when you are able to meet their needs.
  • Earning potential: Naturally with more known languages and an expanded set of opportunities  comes higher earning potential. This is because you’re decreasing the constraints on your work. Plus, if you know more languages, you can increase your rates as you have the bargaining power to fill multiple needs. Freelancing aside, full-time employers are also seeking polyglot programmers over those who just know one language as it increases the flexibility of their team.
  • Uses: It’s the job of a programmer to know what language to use based on the task at hand. Since each programming language has its own best uses, you’ll know what to apply to each project.
  • Boost reputation: The more you know, the more work you will have to show for it. As you grow in your career, you can set yourself apart because of your broad base of knowledge and varied projects.

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The Bottom Line

Whether you hope to be a freelance coder or work in-house for a company, it’s crucial to know different programming languages. This will increase your earning potential, boost your reputation, and enhance your adaptability.