Is JavaScript Hard to Learn?

JavaScript and HTML Compared

The degree of difficulty in learning JavaScript depends on the level of knowledge you bring to it. Because the most common way to run JavaScript is as part of a web page, you must first understand HTML. In addition, a familiarity with CSS is also useful because CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) provides the formatting engine behind the HTML.

Comparing JavaScript to HTML

HTML is a markup language, meaning that it annotates text for a particular purpose, and it's human-readable.

HTML is a fairly straightforward and simple language to learn. 

Each piece of content is wrapped inside HTML tags that identify what that content is. Typical HTML tags wrap paragraphs, headings, lists and graphics, for example. An HTML tag encloses the content within < > symbols, with the tag name appearing first followed by a series of attributes. The closing tag to match an opening tag is identified by placing a slash in front of the tag name. For example, here's a paragraph element:

<p>I am a paragraph.</p>

And here is the same paragraph element with an attribute title:

<p title='I am an attribute applied to this paragraph'>I am a paragraph.</p>

JavaScript, however, is not a markup language; rather, it is a programming language. That by itself is enough to make learning JavaScript a lot more difficult than HTML. While a markup language describes what something is, a programming language defines a series of actions to be performed.

Each command written in JavaScript defines an individual action — which can be anything from copying a value from one place to another, performing calculations on something, testing a condition, or even providing a list of values to be used in running a long series of commands that have been previously defined.

As there are lots of different actions that can be performed and those actions can be combined in many different ways, learning any programming language is going to be more difficult than learning a markup language because there is a lot more that you need to learn.

However, there's a caveat: To be able to properly use a markup language, you need to learn the entire language. Knowing part of a markup language without knowing the rest means that you cannot mark up all of the page content correctly. But knowing a part of a programming language means that you can write programs that use the part of the language that you know to create programs.

While JavaScript is more complex than HTML, you can start writing useful JavaScript far more quickly than you might take to learn how to correctly mark up web pages with HTML. It will, however, take you a lot longer to learn everything that can be done with JavaScript than HTML.

Comparing JavaScript to Other Programming Languages

If you already know another programming language, then learning JavaScript will be much easier for you than it was to learn that other language. Learning your first programming language is always the hardest one since when you learn a second and subsequent language that uses a similar programming style you already understand the programming style and just need to learn how the new language sets out the commands to do the things you already know how to do in another language.

Differences in Programming Language Styles

Programming languages have different styles. If the language you already know has the same style, or paradigm, than does JavaScript, learning JavaScript will be fairly easy. JavaScript supports two styles: procedural, or object oriented. If you already know a procedural or object oriented language, you will find learning to write JavaScript the same way relatively easy.

Another way in which programming languages differ is that some are compiled while others are interpreted:

  • A compiled language is fed through a compiler which converts the entire code into something that the computer can understand. The compiled version is what gets run; if you need to make changes to the program, you must recompile the program before running it again.
  • An interpreted language converts the code into something the computer can understand at the time the individual commands are run; this kind of language is not compiled in advance. JavaScript is an interpreted language, which means that you can make changes to your code and run it again straight away to see the effect of your change without having to recompile the code.

    Testing Requirements for Various Languages

    Another difference between programming languages is where they can be run. For example, programs that are intended to run on a web page require a web server that is running the appropriate language in order to be able to test programs written in that language.

    JavaScript is similar to several other programming languages, so knowing JavaScript will make it fairly easy to learn the similar languages. Where JavaScript has the advantage is that support for the language is built into web browsers — all you need to test your programs as you write them is a web browser to run the code in — and just about everyone has a browser already installed on their computer. To test your JavaScript programs, you don't need to install a server environment, upload the files to a server elsewhere, or compile the code. This makes JavaScript an ideal choice as a first programming language.

    Differences in Web Browsers an Their Effect on JavaScript

    The one area in which learning JavaScript is harder than other programming languages is that different web browsers interpret some JavaScript code slightly differently. This introduces an extra task into JavaScript coding that several other programming languages don't need — that of testing how a given browser expects to perform certain tasks.

    Conclusions

    In many ways, JavaScript is one of the easiest programming language to learn as your first language. The way that it functions as an interpreted language within the web browser means that you can easily write even the most complex code by writing it a small piece at a time and testing it in the web browser as you go. Even small pieces of JavaScript can be useful enhancements to a web page, and so you can become productive almost immediately.