How to Learn C

C is a programming language that’s used to create software for use in computers, embedded systems and various other devices. Languages like C are the tools used to create programs in a similar  way the alphabet and grammar are the tools used to create spoken and written works.

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Experts call C a powerful programming language because it allows direct access to memory and low-level operations within the computer. Additionally, it’s not exclusive to any type of hardware or operating system. 

Because of this power and the lack of graphic user interfaces, C is considered an advanced language to learn.  Once programmers master it, they’re equipped to tackle many other languages.

 How is C used?

The uses of C have evolved over the years. C is considered a relatively low-level language because it creates software that can be configured for use on different types of computers. Programmers could create the software one time in C and then compile or finalize it for computers that use different operating systems.

The core language of C is relatively small compared to other programs. Other functions and information are provided through libraries. Programmers may access the libraries they need for a particular project and ignore the rest.

As a general-purpose language, programmers count on C when developing enterprise applications, games, graphics or any applications requiring calculations. It’s also a valuable tool for software engineers developing high-performance applications that involve data processing or low-level code for operating systems and drivers. It’s still commonly used for developing applications for Windows, Unix and Linux systems.

The configuration of C as a small core language had led to its current popularity in embedded devices that have a limited amount of resources. Today, it’s found on many internet servers that use the Linux language, as well as Android mobile devices, which are based on Linux.

Because it gives them direct control over the computer’s memory, programmers use C for programs on embedded devices that use Arduino boards. Developers for Internet of Things (IoT) devices are using C due to its responsiveness with small software programs, but new languages that are better equipped to create software for modern computers and mobile devices are catching up to C in popularity. 

What Do I Need to Know Before C?

Learning C as your first computer programming language is possible, but there may be more optimal routes. Some programmers feel that other languages are easier to learn and may help them tackle tackling C.

To get started, it may be helpful to have some basic tools and knowledge at hand.

  • Coding tool: C uses a simple text-based tool available in a browser or as an application.
  • Compiler: This software converts the programming language into machine language the computer can execute. A basic understanding of coding syntax will also be helpful.
  • Debugger: This tool will help you find errors in the code, which can run to thousands of lines for complex programs.

Other concepts that are helpful to know include:

  • Operators
  • Data types
  • Error detection limits
  • Standard libraries
  • Debugging

There are many free or low-cost resources online to learn more about the prerequisite skills. Harvard University’s CS50 computer science curriculum — which offers introductions to C and other languages — is available on YouTube. Another free site is The Odin Project, which features computer science courses along with tutorials, blogs and a community of experts and fellow learners. Many programmers tap into communities of learners on sites such as StackOverflow, where beginners and experts ask questions and share their knowledge.

For formal education, computer science classes are available in-person and online. Fast-paced training is available in specific languages through online coding bootcamps that offer intensive learning experiences designed to prepare students for jobs. Learning a new language like C may help professionals take their careers to a new level.

Some online classes are free but ask for payment to issue a professional certificate of completion as a credential for employers.

Professional C language certifications are available from the C++ Institute at three levels:

CLE – C Certified Entry-Level Programmer Certification

The starting point for a career in software development, C programming and related technology.

CLA – C Programming Language Certified Associate Certification

A mid-career certification that measures the ability to accomplish tasks related to programming in the C language.

CLP – C Certified Professional Programmer Certification

The highest level of certification related to advanced skills in the C language as well as advanced techniques regarding library and memory functions.

Tips and Strategies for Learning C

  • Learn the variable types. Understand the type of data that you are working with, such as whether it’s an integer or a character. C is based on data types, so understanding this characteristic is the foundation for writing programs that work well.
  • Learn the operators. Operators are symbols that tell the compiler program what to do. For example, the + sign is an operator — but not all of them are this obvious. Operators are used for arithmetic functions as well as logic operations.
  • Use standard libraries. The libraries contain useful information, variables and macros that are installed when needed in the program. For example, a library may contain information about international currencies. If your program doesn’t involve the Euro or the Australian dollar, then you don’t need to use that library. There are at least 15 standard libraries programmers may use in their projects. Custom libraries can be created with additional features and functions.
  • Understand error handling. Unlike other languages, C doesn’t provide error messages. Instead, the program stops running or behaves in unexpected ways. If the code doesn’t work the way you want it to, you’ll have to find the problem.
  • Use a debugger. A debugger is a program that identifies problems in your code. Programmers use debuggers to write better code.
  • Look at sample code. Practice reading C programming to learn the fundamentals and use tutorials to practice it.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning the C programming language might seem overwhelming, so we’ve outlined some frequently asked questions. Read more about the best programming languages to learn, including C.

Can I teach myself C?

Yes, especially if you have experience learning other programming languages. There are free or low-cost self-guided courses you may take, or you could seek out online resources that use videos and examples to guide you through the process. Make use of communities surrounding C to answer questions that arise.

One of the common first C programs coders learn to write is called “Hello World.” You can use this simple tutorial  provided by Free Code Camp to say Hello World with C.

Is it easy to learn C?

C is one of the oldest programming languages still in use, which means there are many free resources available including tutorials, videos, phone apps and online communities. However, it’s also ‘old school’ in the sense that it’s a text-based language that’s sometimes finicky to write without errors at first. Experts recommend learning how to use a debugger tool to find problems faster.

How long will it take to learn C?

Learning C in an intensive bootcamp environment depends on your learning preferences and whether it’s a full-time or part-time experience. You could also learn C programming on your own, at your own pace — it all depends on how you choose to go about it. The length depends in large part on your coding experience and the time you have available to devote to it.

What is the difference between C++ and C#?

Both are object-oriented languages, built on a foundation of C. C++ is a general-purpose language that adds the concept of object classes to C while maintaining its speed and memory efficiency. C#, also known as C Sharp, is  an object-oriented language used to create programs that run on the .NET framework for Windows desktop applications, web apps and games. Its code is easier to read for beginners, and it’s similar to Java — another popular language. Due to its memory management capabilities, C++ programs tend to run faster.

Last updated: February 2021