When comparing C vs Scheme, the Slant community recommends C for most people. In the question“What is the best programming language to learn first?” C is ranked 2nd while Scheme is ranked 3rd. The most important reason people chose C is:
Learning C forces you to grapple with the low-level workings of your computer (memory management, pointers, etc.) in ways that the other languages abstract away. Without an understanding of these low-level aspects of computer programming you will be limited if you try to develop an application that needs to run in a memory or performance constrained environment. Other languages like Python can obscure a lot of details, so your foundation may be weaker.
Ranked in these QuestionsQuestion Ranking
Pro Understanding of computers
Learning C forces you to grapple with the low-level workings of your computer (memory management, pointers, etc.) in ways that the other languages abstract away. Without an understanding of these low-level aspects of computer programming you will be limited if you try to develop an application that needs to run in a memory or performance constrained environment.
Other languages like Python can obscure a lot of details, so your foundation may be weaker.
Pro Helps with learning other languages later
Pro Industry standard
C is the industry standard programming language, moreover, it is the most popular programming language to use. C is the language used for most Windows, UNIX and Mac operating systems.
Capability to program in C is greatly appreciated in developers, creates an image of competency, and many programmers will learn it at some point in their careers.
C is portable between most hardware. Generally a C compiler is made for any new architecture, and already exists for existing architectures.
C is portable between all operating systems (Windows, UNIX, Mac, etc.) and only needs a program to be recompiled to work. This allows anyone on any operating system to learn about the language and not be held back by intricacies of their operating system.
With this said, C's portability these days is not quite what it used to be. Much of said portability relies on the POSIX standard in particular, and as time passes, the compliance of a given system with that standard is becoming less certain; especially in the case of Linux. Most things will still be portable (or at least emulatable) between Windows, Linux, and FreeBSD for example; but you will at times need to make use of platform-specific support libraries and APIs as well.
Pro Low level of abstraction
While higher level languages languages like Java and Python provide possibilities to be "more expressive" per line of code, it's much more convenient to start with "less efficient" (get me right) language, in order to get initial concepts of how things behave at lower level.
Actually C is a good starting point moving to both higher and lower levels of abstraction, the good example here would be learning C before Assembler, as for general use the Assembler quite hard to understand due to low level of its abstraction (like getting the understanding on how loops work in C before trying to implement them on Assembler).
Pro Teaches good practices
Writing in C will require you to understand how things are done. C implies using and understanding the fundamentals. Learning a higher-level language after is much easier.
Pro More control over the code
Pro The king of languages, imitated, extended but never equalled
Made of a small set of keywords and rules, only your imagination is the limit. Above all, when it comes to 'pro' programming, C is the only one to rely on.
Pro C is simple with lesser rules than any other language
C is standardized and it is the goto language when you have to speed things up
Pro If you can't grok C you should not be a professional programmer
It sets an early bar that if you can't hurdle you might as well do something other than programming and not waste any more of your time.
Pro Portable between CPU architectures
C was designed to be independent of any particular machine architecture, and so with a little care, it is easy to write "portable" programs (see here). By design, C provides constructs that map efficiently to typical machine instructions, and therefore it has found lasting use in applications that had formerly been coded in assembly language like operating systems or small embedded systems.
Pro Basic concepts can be applied to accelerate learning any other language
You can easily pivot knowledge learned here and apply it to almost every other language.
Pro Easy to drop down to assembly.
Sometimes you really need to program directly in assembly. C’s ABI and common compiler extensions make this a piece of cake.
Pro Simple syntax
Scheme syntax is extremely regular and easy to pick up. A formal specification of the syntax fits onto just a few pages; it can be introduced informally in a paragraph or two. Students are not distracted by remembering how to write if statements or loops or even operator precedence because every syntactic follows the same pattern.
Ultimately, everything looks something like this:
(func a b c)
This includes not only user-defined functions but even control flow:
(if cond then-clause else-clause)
or even primitive operations like
(define foo 10) (set! foo 11)
This means that nothing really has special syntactic treatment in the language. There are essentially no weird edge-cases to memorize, and different concepts are given a more equal weight in the language. (Unlike Algol-like languages which tend to given undue weight to loops and assignment statements, for example.)
Pro No Magic - it's clear how everything works
Scheme has far less built into the language itself, helping students see that things like OOP are not magical: they are just patterns for organizing code. Everything in Scheme is built up from a very small set of primitives which compose in a natural and intuitive fashion.
Having a language that does not accord many things special status helps keep students open minded. This will help students later go between different languages and paradigms from procedural to object-oriented to functional.
Pro Great at teaching fundamental programming ideas
Scheme teaches the important, fundamental ideas immediately without the distraction of unnecessary syntax or language features.
Pro Great, well known textbooks
There is a set of very strong textbooks introducing CS and programming using Scheme. These books are available for free online.
The most famous example--and one of the most famous CS books full stop--is Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs usually known as SICP. This book introduces fundamental ideas in computer science and covers an incredible amount of material quickly and clearly without requiring any prior knowledge.
However, some people find SICP a bit challenging as a first text. Happily, there are other more introductory texts as well. Simply Scheme is a book designed to be read before SICP, easing beginners into the language as well as CS and programming in general. How to Design Programs is another text used in introductory college courses.
Pro Robust metaprogramming
The quotation functionality of Lisp allow for extremely powerful, yet syntactically straightforward metaprogramming via macros. This is more powerful than the C preprocessor while being less involved than something like Template Haskell or F# quotations.
Using macros to properly decompose a problem domain teaches new developers good habits, improving composibility and reliability when tackling large programs. Scheme metaprogramming also serves as a gentle introduction to domain specific languages.
Pro Multi platform
GNU/Linux, OS X, and Windows versions available.
Unlike most languages, Scheme actually accords both functional programming and imperative programming roughly equal status. Many other languages like Python and Java are staunchly imperative while SML and Haskell are primarily functional; Scheme is a nice middle ground.
Additionally, since Scheme syntax is extremely flexible, it can easily be re-purposed for teaching non-deterministic and logic programming. There is no need to learn a new language like Prolog when the same ideas can easily be expressed with Scheme syntax.
This gives students a good perspective on different ways to think about and organize programs, which makes it much easier to move forward to other languages and technologies.
Con Languages is full of corner cases and undefined behaviors
Undefined behavior in a program can cause unexpected results, making it hard to debug. With UB, program behavior may vary wildly depending on optimization settings. There are many cases that invoke UB, such as signed overflow, invalid dereferences, large integer shifts, uninitialized variables, etc. These serve to frustrate novice programmers when they could be learning other concepts.
Con C will require you to learn concepts too advanced for most beginners
While other programmers will learn algorithms and structures and will do magic tricks and awesome applications, you will learn trash info that you should know maybe after 5-7 years experience in software development, not earlier. It's like going the first time as a seven year old kid to first school class, and your teacher tells you to learn you about Discrete Math, without basic math and how to do 2x2.
If you wish to be a really good programmer, C for sure will be in your portfolio, but not as a first language, and this programming language is used only for very hard and very limited tools which require a lot of professional skills from the programmer.
Con Long learning curve
While the language compliments knowledge of computer components very well, and gives a deeper understanding, it is also quite difficult to learn, and to use correctly, especially without aforementioned knowledge.
Con Requires memory management
Learning programming is already hard enough when you don't have to worry about memory leaks.
Depending on the purpose this can be either a pro or a con. If the task is to learn how to program, low-level of C will impend learning important concepts. Furthermore, C is rather limited in ways of building abstractions.
"Low-levelness" of C can be a pro feature in learning system programming.
Con Completely lacks type safety
The C standard library is not type safe, and the language itself does not promote type safety built into the language, which leads to error-proneness of the language. If anything, it would be recommended that those interested in C to instead put their time in D, which actually includes a complete copy of the C standard library rewritten to be fully type safe.
Con Lack of support for first class strings
C does not support the string type, nor does it support UTF-8 strings that modern languages are employing today. Instead of strings, C makes use of the *char type which is a pointer to a character array.
Con Arrays are not first class objects
When an array is passed to a function, it is converted to a pointer, even though the prototype confusingly says it's an array. When this conversion happens, all array type information gets lost. C arrays also cannot not be resized, which means that even simple aggregates like a stack are complicated to implement. C arrays also cannot be bounds checked, because they don't know what the array bounds are.
Con Does not support modules; header file annoyances
Header files are a poor man's implementation of modules. Modern programming languages make use of modules which eliminate the need for C includes and header files and the many issues caused by them, such as the complete lack of dependency checking. Header files often contain even more include statements that point to other header files which also point to even more which drastically increases compile time. Modules only have to be compiled once, and when importing those modules into your software project, you only have to pull in the module that you are using, which is often times already precompiled. This way, the compiler knows exactly what it needs before beginning to compile your project and can automatically compile the few dependencies it needs in advance rather than recursively compiling every header file it runs across as in C.
Con Isn't truly portable or cross platform
The C programming language is not portable to other operating systems, and even different compilers, because the C language does not provide any reference cross platform libraries or compilers. Different platforms and compilers provide their own implementation of the C standard library which may not be compatible with the implementation in another compiler or platform. Without cross platform libraries and tools, one cannot state that C is portable. This is in stark contrast to modern programming languages that provide their own cross platform libraries and compilers, such as D, Go and Rust.
Con Only offers basic support for source code split into multiple files
Modern programming languages are capable of compiling split source code files by concatenating them together efficiently at compile time before compiling them. However, C requires the developer to resort to messing with header files and makefiles to get similar functionality.
Con The need for C developers in the current market is very low, and trending downward
Older languages, like C, are no longer in their hay day. Even if you do learn it as your first language, you are only setting yourself up to need to learn another language in the long run. If you want a skill that you can not only learn from, but also potentially build a career on, C should not be your first choice.
Con Compiles procedurally rather than intelligently
In the same manner that C recursively compiles header files ad infinitum without any sort of dependency checking, C source code is also compiled in the same manner. If you attempt to call a function before it is declared, the compiler will fail because the function was not compiled before it was caled.
Con Undefined behaviors and weak limited type safety
Subtle errors can render the entire program "undefined" by the complicated C standard. The standard imposes no requirements in such cases. Thus C compiler is free to ignore the existence of such cases and Bad Things are prone to happen instead. Even experts can't reliably avoid undefined cases in C, so how can beginners be expected to do so? C allows for non-type safe operations such as logic errors, wild pointers, buffer overflow, etc. UB and type safety issues create a large number of bugs and security vulnerabilities.
Con C structs are very weak and outdated
C structs lack a lot of modern capabilities that are vital in programming languages of today, such as assigning member functions to structs to give them object-oriented capabilities, constructs, deconstructors and RAII. Great care must be used when using structs in C to prevent memory leaks and ridiculously slow structs.
Con Includes require obscene resources to compile
All the modern languages have resulted in ditching the ancient deprecated model of #include statements and have instead adopted the superior model of modules. When compiling software written in C, the programmer is forced to also compile X headers which contain Y headers which contain Z headers and so forth -- drastically increasing the number of lines that need to be compiled. In order to compile something as simple as "Hello, World", for example, 18K lines of code needs to be compiled. This can be very taxing on RAM and CPU resources, causing compile times to quickly absorb a large portion of the programming process.
Con Heavily outdated programming concepts
C lacks a large majority of programming concepts that modern languages make use of today. The existing functionality of C makes use of outdated and deprecated methodologies which can be of great annoyance to the modern day programmer.
Con Little Job Market
There are little to none jobs searching for a Scheme programmer. The ones that exist are more related to Research in Maths or Artificial Intelligence.
Con Fragmented ecosystem
Scheme is an IEEE standard, not an implementation. Unfortunately, the standard is too minimal and practical implementations have diverged--they had to expand on the standard to get anything done, but did so in incompatible ways.
The later de facto standard R6RS tried to correct this, but lost Scheme's minimalist elegance in the process. The newer R7RS standard takes the best of both worlds with an elegant minimalist core and a practical standard library.
Con A language that is purely academic
If someone said "I am starting a project in Scheme" then they are either talking about their homework or they are starting a joke.
Con Very different semantics from mainstream programming languages