0.2 — Introduction to programming languages

Modern computers are incredibly fast, and getting faster all the time. Yet with this speed comes some significant constraints: Computers only natively understand a very limited set of commands, and must be told exactly what to do.

A computer program (also commonly called an application) is a set of instructions that the computer can perform in order to perform some task. The process of creating a program is called programming. Programmers typically create programs by producing source code (commonly shortened to code), which is a list of commands typed into one or more text files.

The collection of physical computer parts that make up a computer and execute programs is called the hardware. When a computer program is loaded into memory and the hardware sequentially executes each instruction, this is called running or executing the program.

Machine Language

A computer’s CPU is incapable of speaking C++. The limited set of instructions that a CPU can understand directly is called machine code (or machine language or an instruction set).

Here is a sample machine language instruction: 10110000 01100001

Back when computers were first invented, programmers had to write programs directly in machine language, which was a very difficult and time consuming thing to do.

How these instructions are organized is beyond the scope of this introduction, but it is interesting to note two things. First, each instruction is composed of a sequence of 1’s and 0’s. Each individual 0 or 1 is called a binary digit, or bit for short. The number of bits that make up a single command vary -- For example, some CPUs process instructions that are always 32 bits long, whereas some other CPUs (such as the x86 family, which you are likely using) have instructions that can be a variable length.

Second, each set of binary digits is interpreted by the CPU into a command to do a very specific job, such as compare these two numbers, or put this number in that memory location. However, because different CPUs have different instruction sets, instructions that were written for one CPU type could not be used on a CPU that didn’t share the same instruction set. This meant programs generally weren’t portable (usable without major rework) to different types of system, and had to be written all over again.

Assembly Language

Because machine language is so hard for humans to read and understand, assembly language was invented. In an assembly language, each instruction is identified by a short abbreviation (rather than a set of bits), and names and other numbers can be used.

Here is the same instruction as above in assembly language: mov al, 061h

This makes assembly much easier to read and write than machine language. However, the CPU can not understand assembly language directly. Instead, the assembly program must be translated into machine language before it can be executed by the computer. This is done by using a program called an assembler. Programs written in assembly languages tend to be very fast, and assembly is still used today when speed is critical.

However, assembly still has some downsides. First, assembly languages still require a lot of instructions to do even simple tasks. While the individual instructions themselves are somewhat human readable, understanding what an entire program is doing can be challenging (it’s a bit like trying to understand a sentence by looking at each letter individually). Second, assembly language still isn’t very portable -- a program written in assembly for one CPU will likely not work on hardware that uses a different instruction set, and would have to be rewritten or extensively modified.

High-level Languages

To address the readability and portability concerns, new programming languages such as C, C++, Pascal (and later, languages such as Java, Javascript, and Perl) were developed. These languages are called high level languages, as they are designed to allow the programmer to write programs without having to be as concerned about what kind of computer the program will be run on.

Here is the same instruction as above in C/C++: a = 97;

Much like assembly programs, programs written in high level languages must be translated into a format the computer can understand before they can be run. There are two primary ways this is done: compiling and interpreting.

A compiler is a program that reads source code and produces a stand-alone executable program that can then be run. Once your code has been turned into an executable, you do not need the compiler to run the program. In the beginning, compilers were primitive and produced slow, unoptimized code. However, over the years, compilers have become very good at producing fast, optimized code, and in some cases can do a better job than humans can in assembly language!

Here is a simplified representation of the compiling process:

Example of compiling

Since C++ programs are generally compiled, we’ll explore compilers in more detail shortly.

An interpreter is a program that directly executes the instructions in the source code without requiring them to be compiled into an executable first. Interpreters tend to be more flexible than compilers, but are less efficient when running programs because the interpreting process needs to be done every time the program is run. This means the interpreter is needed every time the program is run.

Here is a simplified representation of the interpretation process:

Example of interpreting

Optional reading

A good comparison of the advantages of compilers vs interpreters can be found here

Most languages can be compiled or interpreted, however, traditionally languages like C, C++, and Pascal are compiled, whereas “scripting” languages like Perl and Javascript tend to be interpreted. Some languages, like Java, use a mix of the two.

High level languages have many desirable properties.

First, high level languages are much easier to read and write because the commands are closer to natural language that we use every day. Second, high level languages require fewer instructions to perform the same task as lower level languages, making programs more concise and easier to understand. In C++ you can do something like a = b * 2 + 5; in one line. In assembly language, this would take 5 or 6 different instructions.

Third, programs can be compiled (or interpreted) for many different systems, and you don’t have to change the program to run on different CPUs (you just recompile for that CPU). As an example:

Example of portability

There are two general exceptions to portability. The first is that many operating systems, such as Microsoft Windows, contain platform-specific functions that you can use in your code. These can make it much easier to write a program for a specific operating system, but at the expense of portability. In these tutorials, we will avoid any platform specific code.

Some compilers also support compiler-specific extensions -- if you use these, your programs won’t be able to be compiled by other compilers that don’t support the same extensions without modification. We’ll talk more about these later, once you’ve installed a compiler.

Rules, Best practices, and warnings

As we proceed through these tutorials, we’ll highlight many important points under the following three categories:


Rules are instructions that you must do, as required by the language. Failure to abide by a rule will generally result in your program not working.

Best practice

Best practices are things that you should do, because that way of doing things is generally considered a standard or highly recommended. That is, either everybody does it that way (and if you do otherwise, you’ll be doing something people don’t expect), or it is superior to the alternatives.


Warnings are things that you should not do, because they will generally lead to unexpected results.

0.3 -- Introduction to C/C++
0.1 -- Introduction to these tutorials

194 comments to 0.2 — Introduction to programming languages

  • Mark

    This lesson contains a rather common grammatical usage error. Under the optional reading block, the following sentence needs correction.

    “Second, high level languages require >>less<< instructions to perform the same task as lower level languages, making programs more concise and easier to understand.”

    Should be corrected to read:

    “Second, high level languages require >>fewer<< instructions to perform the same task as lower level languages, making programs more concise and easier to understand.”

    The way to remember the proper usage of less versus fewer is that the former refers to things that cannot be counted (e.g., less pain, noise, information, rain, etc.) and the latter to things that can be counted (e.g., fewer marbles, commercials, thunderstorms, injuries, etc.).

  • Ryan

    I believe there is a typo in the 'High-level Languages' section. Where you say "Interpreters tend to be more flexible that compilers", it seems you meant to say 'than' instead of 'that'.

  • Dima

    Hi, Alex!
    Glad to see that you've started to update the design of lessons. Can you tell me, do I need to re-read updated lassons or they haven't changed a lot. If changed, may be it is possible to mark them as "updated, recommended for reading"

    • Alex

      The lessons that have been updated so far don't need to be re-read, as the content changes are fairly minor. The new lessons are worth a look-through.

      But the point you're making is fair -- maybe I need to differentiate restyled vs revised as I work my way through the future lessons.

  • Rohan verma

    Does it mean a=97 similarly. b=3 or c=100 which means a has value of 97 n b has value of 3 n c has value of 100

  • mike

    can a=97 because a was declared to equal 97, example a=97, b=32, and so on?

  • Samira Ferdi

    assembly languange translated to machine language using assembler and then CPU tranlated machine language into instruction that computer understand? So, is it correcty to say that assembly language (and maybe other language especially high/low level language)has 2 times translation?

    • Alex

      No, machine language can be directly interpreted by the CPU. So assembly gets "assembled" once. High level languages may get compiled directly to machine language, or get compiled into assembly and then converted to machine language using an assembler.

  • Chester

    I think it says a = 97, not “a = 97;” and 01100001 does = 97; not“10110000 01100001”. (semantics)

  • aleksandr

    Can not understand.
    The instruction(instruction or statement ?) “ a = 97;”  is compiled into the machine language instruction  “10110000 01100001”.
    10110000 == 176
    01100001 == 97
    ‘a’ == 97
    ‘spacebar’ == 32
    ‘;’ == 59
    ‘=’  == 61
    How is the instruction “a = 97;” physically converted to “10110000 01100001” ?

    • Alex

      The 97 part is straightforward, that's just the value 97 encoded into binary. In this case, the upper bytes represent a "mov" command, which will cause the CPU to move the value in the lower bytes (97 decimal) into al, which is the lower 8 bits of the ax register on 80x86 architectures (which in this case, is being used to hold/manipulate the value of variable a).

      Generally speaking, this is more of an assembly level question, and is outside the scope of these tutorials. You don't need to know this stuff to proceed, as the compiler takes care of all the magic for you.

      This is far outside the scope of these tutorials. The short answer is that the compiler parses and translates a = 97 into the appropriate set of binary to execute the equivalent of that command on a given architecture. If you were to compile a = 97 for a different architecture, you might get a different set of bytes.

  • Pon

    How different with DevC++ and MS Vitual basic?

    • nascardriver

      Hi Pon!

      > MS Vitual basic
      There's no such thing

      C++ and MS Visual basic
      Very different, don't learn visual basic, it's junk

      DevC++ and MS Visual Studio
      Very different too, I'd go for Visual Studio unless you can't afford the 10GB or however large it is of download/disk space.

  • Marcos

    thank you very much!!! im understanding quite well and just started a BA for software development in IU online

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