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What is the Best Programming Language to Learn in 2014?

Craig Buckler

It’s been a year since I revealed the best languages to learn in 2013. Once again, I’ve examined the data produced by Jobs Tractor who analyzed more than 45,000 developer jobs advertised on Twitter during the past twelve months. The results:

Java 8,731
PHP 8,238
Objective-C 5,859
Java for Android 4,312
SQL 3,553
JavaScript 3,154
Ruby 2,937
C# 2,549
Python 1,587
C++ 1,273
C 685
ActionScript 674 492
Perl 224
Scala 143
Visual Basic 92

technology job advertisements

The main changes since last year…

  • PHP and Java have switched places but both remain in high demand.
  • Java for Android has overtaken SQL and is closing in on Objective-C.
  • JavaScript has overtaken Ruby.
  • Python has risen two places.
  • ActionScript has dropped two places.

Take this survey with a large pinch of salt. Then add pepper, ketchup and numerous other condiments. I’m not convinced Twitter is a reliable source of job-related data and regional differences can skew results.

A recent survey by the online course provider for Mashable produced the following list of languages in order of popularity:

  1. Java
  2. C
  3. C++
  4. C#
  5. Objective-C
  6. PHP
  7. Python
  8. Ruby
  9. JavaScript
  10. SQL

The usual suspects are there but, again, results will be biased by the topics offered and the site’s target audience (primarily newer developers).

Industry analyst RedMonk has taken a different approach and determined language popularity by examining the frequency of projects on GitHub and questions on StackOverflow:

  1. JavaScript
  2. Java
  3. PHP
  4. C#
  5. Python
  6. C++
  7. Ruby
  8. C
  9. Objective-C
  10. CSS

Redmonk Programming Language Rankings

Don’t take this too literally; a language could score higher if it’s more problematic than others. I’m also surprised to find CSS on the list — although due to pre-processors like Sass, LESS and Stylus, CSS tends to be viewed more as a programming language nowadays. That said, if CSS is considered a programming language, where are HTML and SQL?

I Want Advice — Not Statistics!

Let’s make one point crystal-clear:

Never use statistics as the sole basis for learning a language.

Few developers start programming for financial gain. There are far easier ways to make money … become a “digital marketing strategist” or “SEO specialist” and hone those board-level BS monologues. (Apologies to any conscientious “specialists” out there — I’m sure you exist, I’ve just not met you yet.)

Choosing a popular language also pits you against thousands of others. Learning Fortran won’t be trendy but you’ll find lucrative work maintaining decades-old legacy systems no other developer wants to touch. Fortunately, we can make a few general observations that may sway your language-learning objectives.

Technologies Rise and Fall

All languages ascend and descend in popularity and demand but timescales will differ. Consider ActionScript. Flash development is in decline and I suspect a large chunk of ActionScript projects are in maintenance mode. The same can be said for Perl, COBOL and Visual Basic 6, although they’ve enjoyed a longer life.

If you’re particularly risk-averse, you may want to avoid languages with limited platform support such as ActionScript, VB6 and Objective-C. However, while Objective-C is primarily used on Apple-based OSes and APIs, the platform’s ascendancy continues and there’s no shortage of app-development jobs. For now.

Choices for Existing Developers

If you’ve mastered a language or two, the choice is far simpler: pick something that interests you (intellectually or financially). Programming skills are transferable and the learning curve will be shallower when learning a new language compared to when you first started.

There may be some obvious opportunities, for example:

  • ActionScript is based on ECMAScript (which is implemented in browsers as JavaScript); Flash developers will thus have a logical progression to HTML5 technologies.
  • C++, Java, C#, Objective-C and even PHP are conceptually similar, so you may be able to switch between them with relative ease.
  • If you’re developing Windows desktop applications using VisualStudio, your .NET knowledge will be applicable to Microsoft web server platforms.

Despite this, don’t be afraid to learn something new. JavaScript looks similar to Java and other C-like languages but many developers initially struggle with it because it’s fundamentally different. Persevere and you’ll gradually appreciate what JavaScript offers.

Choices for New Developers

Those fortunate enough to have started in the days of 8-bit home computing had few options and learned their craft with something like BASIC before progressing to C or assembly when they felt confident to do so. The dawn of the web was similarly simplistic; you learned HTML and perhaps a server-side language such as Perl. Skills could be gained incrementally as HTML evolved and technologies such as CSS, JavaScript, PHP, ASP and .NET were introduced.

I don’t envy those new to development in 2014; the choice is bewildering. Where do you start?

Tentatively, I suggest JavaScript. The language is available everywhere, growing rapidly and offers virtually unlimited online resources. Learning JavaScript first may also help you avoid some of the confusion experienced by developers coming from other languages. My only hesitation is the hostility of learning it within the browser environment. JavaScript can require additional knowledge of client-server architecture, HTML, CSS and cross-browser quirks — even if you’re primarily creating Node.js server-side code.

Alternatively, you could consider a language such as Ruby or Python which are relatively quick to learn and less encumbered by legacy and environmental issues. However, they offer fewer resources and deviate from C-based syntaxes which may be your ultimate goal.

The best advice I can offer: stop taking advice from articles like this!

Identify a problem and solve it with the software tools you have. Perhaps that’s automating a task using Autohotkey or writing an expenses calculation macro in a spreadsheet. That knowledge will provide the impetus to progress to bigger and better programming tasks.

Question: If you recently started programming, what language did you choose? Did it help or hinder your learning? Would you recommend it to new developers?

Don’t just read about it — start learning to program for the web today! Learnable memberships come with unlimited access to hundreds of books and courses covering Ruby, PHP and everything in between.