[Phillip Torrone] on why all makers should learn Chinese

phil_torrone_why_every_maker_should_learn_chinese

A while ago when he was working in China, [Phillip Torrone] started learning Mandarin Chinese in order to help him communicate more efficiently with his peers. Unfortunately, once he returned to the US, he slowly started forgetting most of what he had learned. He recently wrote a piece over at Make: explaining why he’s attempting to learn Mandarin once again, and why you as a maker should consider doing the same.

He starts off citing the economic trends which indicate that China’s global GDP share will likely bypass that of the US in a few short years. While the stats might be a bit boring he says, the rise of a new global superpower is nothing to shrug off.

Economic changes aside, he has found that through his workings at Adafruit and other tech companies, he is frequently being exposed to more and more Chinese on a daily basis. Between emails with suppliers, data sheets, and schematics, he says that learning Chinese is a must for makers.

What do you think? Do any of you full-time makers and hackers see the same trend in your jobs? Let us know in the comments.

Comments

  1. pt says:

    @zuul, you wrote “I’m sorry to say it feels like this is just Phil doing something and wanting everyone else to do it too.” no, it’s actually better if other “maker” companies do not learn the language, i’ll have a better time, get to know more people and get better deals. i’m sharing my experiences – but you can also look at: chumby, tv-b-gone and sparkfun as other examples of people and companies either moving to china (or near it) or visiting frequently.

  2. Aaron says:

    Torrone: I did. The question stands. In fact, now I’m wondering whether the cover misrepresents the article, or whether your definition of ‘everyone’ is as narrow as the article makes it appear — other than people who are either already in business or who are looking to be, you offer no reason beyond “well, it’s polite,” which is true in general but not very useful if you don’t actually know or work with anyone who speaks Chinese.

    As for this borderless world of which you dream, have fun, kiddo. Maybe I’ll give a shit about that when half the people I know aren’t out of work and struggling to stay in their homes.

  3. ZeUs says:

    All serious Chinese learn English. If only because of the basis in a limited set of characters. I had enough trouble learning to write our current set, how the hell am I going to write Chinese, EVER?

  4. HurrDurr says:

    Why not esperanto ?
    Then both groups are required to learn a language and the language isn’t tied to one country.

  5. pt says:

    @aaron, if you’ve read the article i specifically outline my usage and how it’s helped run a maker business even in my first month of learning chinese. from data sheets, codes, working with supplier to yes, being polite.

    “As for this borderless world of which you dream, have fun, kiddo. Maybe I’ll give a shit about that when half the people I know aren’t out of work and struggling to stay in their homes.”

    you don’t think the world is more borderless with the internet already?

  6. dan says:

    pt,
    “look at detroit”

    You missed the point, this isn’t like places where banks have foreclosed and people are evicted, leaving baron neighbourhoods of empty houses, these are new houses, that nobody can afford government sponsored projects getting the population working. Eerily similar to the great infrastructure projects of the 20’s and 30’s in America that were designed to lift the country out of the great depression. Except that failed, and the only thing that could boost the economy was WW2. -but hey WW3 is always just around the corner right?

    If you actually listen to most rational economists, (not the scaremongers in the US who are trying to create panic about a slipping #1GDP position to get the government to protect jobs). China isn’t doing so well.
    China did do well because they could do a lot of work for very little money, but now the fact is that even China is now running out of farmers to arm with soldering irons, and with that restriction on very cheap labour, labourers are starting to want (and get) more money in wages. What was once costing only a few hundred pounds from China is now costing nearly twice more.

    This happens everywhere, as for how quick it can happen, look at India, loads of skilled (and semi skilled) jobs went there (about ten years ago), then it turned out that all the cheap workers ended up wanting more wages. now cheap software development is moving to Russia end eastern Europe. (old soviet block countries).

    but sure learn Chinese, why not?
    and you’ll soon find your self learning other languages, if this were the 80’s your article would be saying learn Japanese, now it’s learn Chinese, in about five years it’s going to be learn Malaysian, after that the next one is probably going to be Russian, as Western Russia gets better connected, or perhaps you’ll be saying learn Portuguese when Brazil starts making things cheaper than whoever the country du-jour is. this constant change is why English is (and probably always will be) the language of business. It’s something that’s remaining constant.

    But sure, learn Chinese, it’s a good hobby. it’ll help you a little bit in business, it’s at least a politeness to be able to speak the language of the people you’re speaking to. But essential skill for anyone making things it certainly isn’t!

    Just to correct an earlier comment, English is still the most widely known language in the world, that’s because not only does all of America/Australia/UK use English as a language, but lots of other countries know English too. most of Europe learn English, most of Africa learn English. Most of China learns English.

    It might not be the most widely spoke, or indeed written, but since so many people world wide actually learn it, it’s the closest that we have to a universal language.

    I’d have thought that the most interesting thing about China (to this blog at least) is that China’s growth has been engineered, by actual real engineers. 9 or 11 people in the highest government in china are professional engineers.

  7. pt says:

    >>But sure, learn Chinese, it’s a good hobby. it’ll help you a little bit in business, it’s at least a politeness to be able to speak the language of the people you’re speaking to. But essential skill for anyone making things it certainly isn’t!

    here’s what i said… “In this week’s article I’ll talk about why I think it’s a good idea for any maker to consider picking up some new language skills and specifically what I’m doing. A lot of my articles tend to be about the future (I can’t wait to look back on these 5 years from now). So, yes, I think a lot of us are going to find speaking, reading, and writing the language of the soon-to-be biggest economy in the world and, who makes almost everything, is a good idea. It’s something to consider learning, starting now, particularly for makers, especially the ones who run maker businesses.”

    that’s pretty reasonable.

    >>I’d have thought that the most interesting thing about China (to this blog at least) is that China’s growth has been engineered, by actual real engineers. 9 or 11 people in the highest government in china are professional engineers.

    where i live, in nyc, mayor bloomberg was an engineer too.

  8. Ugly American says:

    Mandarin is very hard to speak well. It is tonal and extremely contextual. Native speakers may understand what you are saying but you will always sound like an ignoramus when you speak Mandarin.

    Mandarin is very hard to read well. It’s even harder to write well.

    Computers have even more trouble with it than humans do.

    For these reasons Mandarin excels at poetry.

    Most people would benefit more from learning more math.

  9. zuul says:

    @pt, being opensource-minded i think you do want people to do what you do (otherwise you wouldn’t write an article about it), but that part doesn’t matter too much to me,
    im not quite sure about your other argument, those are businesses that deal with china

    i was just saying that the average maker wouldn’t stand to gain too much from all the effort of trying to learn chinese…that’s all

    the main problem i think people are having here is that the title says ‘why every maker should learn chinese’ and then your arguments for ‘every maker’ aren’t too strong
    ex: so even the guy building something out of wood should learn chinese? the child making something with arts and crafts? the lady who knits socks? ,.. just saying

  10. pt says:

    @zuul, just to be clear again – here is the first paragraph. people should read beyond a headline on another site and read the actual article :)

    “In this week’s article I’ll talk about why I think it’s a good idea for any maker to consider picking up some new language skills and specifically what I’m doing. A lot of my articles tend to be about the future (I can’t wait to look back on these 5 years from now). So, yes, I think a lot of us are going to find speaking, reading, and writing the language of the soon-to-be biggest economy in the world and, who makes almost everything, is a good idea. It’s something to consider learning, starting now, particularly for makers, especially the ones who run maker businesses.”

    so, guy building something out of wood – maybe, depends if his business is importing wood from china, buying tools from china, etc.. etc…

    lady who knits socks, again – depends on her business / supply chain, etc.

    i know folks like to think they can have opinions by reading twitter-sized bit of information, but reading the entire article is helpful.

    next week’s article is how every kid in the usa should (try to) learn mandarin, arduino and processing. MAP is the new STEM :)

    since no one will read past a headline, everything you need to know about it is here!

  11. Renee says:

    I read the entire article but I still don’t get it.

    I get the “every maker” part, so why bother with the “…if you’re starting a business.”

    That subset is already included so I don’t get the whole backing off, defensive thing of “I’m talking about business” Why would that matter?

    Maybe if people stopped making sensational headlines in the “why you need to do X” style more people would be willing to read through them.

  12. zuul says:

    i read the article, i guess i just don’t think the because-we’ll-all-be-doing-it-in-the-future is a strong argument

    i think it is possible to run a business completely within your own country, even in the years to come

    i was mainly talking about people who just make stuff for fun

  13. Renee says:

    At least it’s called Soapbox.

  14. pt says:

    @zuul, since everyone at hack-a-day is familiar with adafruit, sparkfun, EMSL, tv-b-gone, chumby, etc etc – i thought it was worth pointing all these maker companies are basically doing this now.

    i’m 100% certain you cannot run a business completely within your own country if you do electronics – are you saying you could get parts like LCD only made in the USA?

    folks making stuff for “fun” wasn’t who i specifically described in my article if you read the text, but i will say as they go from just for fun to – a business which many many do, yes – learning chinese is something to consider.

  15. Justin says:

    I like the old torrone model better than this new one. You know, the one back in the days before he ‘had a cause’, remember, like 2005?

    Regardless, sure Chinese languages give some slight advantage in THIS industry, but the real advantage are the possibilities one opens up for oneself simply by learning ANY foreign language. But, this is only my opinion, and I won’t force it down anybody’s throat by making claims like “why all anthropoligists should learn Icelandic”, etc.

    I DID read your article when you posted it to MAKE, and my opinion hasn’t changed since then.

  16. captain says:

    yes. Chinese is a very important language to learn. And a very rich culture.

    All of our tech comes from China so we might as well get used to it.

  17. pt says:

    @justin – in 2005 i was saying open source hardware would something makers should consider doing :) nothing has changed, that was a cause and i think that has proven to have worked out pretty well for everyone.

    “Chinese languages give some slight advantage in THIS industry”

    bingo!

  18. H3llphyre says:

    I think it’s great to learn other languages (I used to be multi lingual, unfortunately not using them makes you forget them).

    However, it disappoints me a bit to use the term “maker” and “outsource to china” in the same sentence. I have zero issues with doing business with China, I’ve been involved in such endeavors (and I wish I spoke any dialect), but it just seems to fly in the face of the whole idea of being makers.

    With MakerBot and the like, I’d rather learn the language of who is making stuff for me, and that’s a bunch of zeros and ones. :)

  19. zuul says:

    菲爾可以告訴未來
    我正在寫從未來五年
    你最好開始學習中國

  20. pt says:

    @H3llphyre – where do you think most/all the components of the makerbot are from? do you think makerbot will eventually make makerbots (assembled) in china? how would you feel about that then?

    @zuul – love that :) google translate isn’t that great, but that somewhat works!

  21. H3llphyre says:

    @pt Aren’t MakerBots supposed to make MakerBots? How else is skynet going to take over?

  22. pt says:

    @H3llphyre – if i had to guess… in 5 years we’ll see the first “reprap” style machine make a complete copy of itself, it will be a simpler version just for a demo like this, but it’s coming. check back in 5 years and see if i was right..

  23. blue carbuncle says:

    I will when they stop putting pee pee in my coke.

    In the meantime most of my business with china is done at the dollar tree and otherwise on the internet, which has multiple abilities at translating.

    Also, not piling on another language at this point in my life.

    We need to reinstate child labor in the US so we can catch back up. Those little bloody hands can get in there so much better ;)

  24. matt says:

    The folks here saying they’ll just stick to English and that the Chinese should learn English have obviously not traveled the world very much- it’s very common to speak more than one language.
    That’s exactly the kind of attitude that makes the world look down on America and it makes me embarrassed to be an American.
    Grow up and live in the real world.
    晚安!

  25. bat says:

    @pt

    ““Chinese languages give some slight advantage in THIS industry”

    bingo!”

    I see. So you’re one of those people who can’t understand that your unique situation doesn’t apply to everyone else. It’s a fairly typical shortcoming of engineers.

  26. baobrien says:

    @matt English is the language in which most trade happens and a very common second language. They are not saying that the Chinese should learn English, but rather that a large number already know English.

  27. pt says:

    @bat – the article was written on the make site and specifically talks about makers (and ones that are doing business with china).

  28. D_ says:

    English is too a flexible language, particularly American English. I see English remaining the global language for business, and science. The Chinese economy is under the thumb of international corporations as is any other economy is. Perhaps more so, because China is more dependent on foreign markets for it goods that any country has ever been. By many accounts the Chinese still live under an oppressive Leadership, not North Korea oppressive, but an oppression the citizen of China may seek to change if increased wealth doesn’t bring them what Europe, and North America have enjoyed for decades. All that the opinion of a person who can recall When Richard Nixon opened the door to China, and what has transpired since. Yes; if you see yourself dealing directly with persons in China, it may be advantageous to learn the language. My guess is that the Chinese will be teaching their children English as the blob language of a global economy.

  29. pfoet says:

    The “problem” with chinese is as pt wrote, that chinese companys make electronic components for chinese developpers who will never need any english datasheet or code example so why not write it directly in chinese then?

    And since more and more developpment is done in china there is less and less need for english datasheets etc.. It’s even a business advantage for the chinese they don’t realy need to hide their stuff since nobody can read it ;)

  30. ftorama says:

    China is strong mainly because foreign companies installed there to earn more and more money. When Chinese will revolt, companies qill go elsewhere as they did for so many years, and China will be a country like any others.

    In the eighties, we were supposed to learn japanese as they were going to rule the world of electronics….with the success we know.

    Let’s wait a few years, and we’ll say we need to learn malaysian or vietnamese. Also, if you feel interest in robotics, learn korean.

    Anyway, more than learning a language, I would suggest you to open your mind to other cultures and countries. I’m still astonished to have read here that some people speak french only because they like it….Typically close-minded opinion

    last thing, sorry for spelling, I’m french ;-)

  31. freze says:

    I can speak some German and I’ve had that come in handy more then a few times. It’s a big language if you travel in Europe and there’s a lot of documentation written in German.

    I don’t think Chinese is that good to learn just because there’s a lot of manufacturing there for the moment. A lot of manufacturing is also done in other east Asian countries. Like Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia etc. Manufacturing will probably shift around in those countries depending on who can provide the cheapest slaves. Right now china is winning that part, but that can change over night. Let’s not forget India also.

  32. KillerBug says:

    I’m not going to waste time learning a language that I can’t even type. Chinese and Japanese are relics of a pre-PC past, and at least 90% of people who work with computers enough that I might want to work with them know english because of this.

    Anyway…I don’t give money to communists; it just makes no sense. I also don’t support slavery, and I don’t support the murder of refugees. Any time you work with a Chinese manufacturer you are giving part of your payment to the Chinese government in the form of taxes, and they use that money to commit atrocities that are so extreme that they seem impossible, often in breech of their own laws and the treaties that they strongarmed other countries into agreeing to.

    …And, if I had time to spend learning Chinese (a single language), I could use that same time to learn about a dozen different programming languages…what is more useful to a programmer…a single language spoken by poor homeless people in a 3rd world country, or a dozen programming languages?

  33. ftorama says:

    @KillerBug

    Perhaps you never heard of japanese keyboards

    And what’s about giving money to americans to attack other countries with falsified evidences of massive destruction weapons?

    You watch too much Fox News. I don’t defend chinese atrocities, but there are at least as much in most other countries. We’re not in “Care bears” world

  34. KillerBug says:

    I don’t defend the USA either…the only defense I can give is “It is still better than China.”

    Yes, I have heard of Japanese keyboards…have you ever seen one? More importantly, have you ever seen one being used? They have to type out everything using about 3x more keystrokes than you would need to type the same concept in english. Then, you have to use a drop-down-box to select what Japanese word you were trying to make because the keyboard isn’t even in Japanese. It seems a fools errand to have even developed such keyboards, as it is just as fast to enter Japanese using a qwerty keyboard. (in other words, terribly slow).

    At least our capitalists admit to being capitalists.

    Also, I don’t watch Fox news, CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, or BBC, or even PBS…none of those old media sources can be trusted.

  35. Aaron says:

    KillerBug, I don’t know about your “I never do business with China”. Not even at one remove? Were all the chips in your PC fabbed in the United States? (And if so, what make is it? I’d rather do business in the US too, if I had that alternative; I’d be much happier to give my money to workers in the US than to slaveowners in China.)

    Torrone: The Internet is neither borderless (Great Firewall of China, for a start!) nor coterminous with the world.

  36. notsureonthis says:

    PT selling out is not the answer to making Detroit great again. Nor is the answer to there being no translated datasheets to learn another language and embraced china’s growth and control over industry. selling out to china will never make our country stronger. Infact generating a movement to embrace another countries language as our own stands to reinforce china’s hold on industry. What we need to do is the same thing china did during our industrial revolution. We take their ideas , and make them a little better , a little cheaper. Then some patriot can translate the documents to english. Just the same as chinese engineers came to trade shows only to copy what they saw there. I refuse to make my country “little china” .
    PT you appear as a sell out pushing this so hard. I support most things you’ve tried to do, but this one is counter productive to every thing Ive ever heard you say. Are we then going to re-re-tool our libraries again after this so every thing is in chinese? Or are people like you who already are learning the language going to put those skills to greater use for the rest of us to benefit by. (ie translate the data rather then creating a world wide movement to push our country, our language , our society into obscurity)

  37. notsureonthis says:

    maybe, if we make the Chinese proud of us in our dedication to convert America to little china they will /allow/ us to make their cars in Detroit. This is the end result if you have success with this learn Chinese initiative.

  38. non-US-guy says:

    There is one more point not touched yet…
    As difficult as it is to learn Chinese as a (western) foreigner. Chinese is a very very efficient language. Since it is phonetic (tones are relevant) you can express many things with basically the same short word. There is the infamous ma ma ma ma which depending on the tone means four different things.

    The characters are advantage too. Take the latest Harry Potter in English and in Chinese. The Chinese version is only 1/3 of pages. The usage of Chinese characters is much more efficient compared to the alphabet.
    Now if you ask me, I would prefer to read 30 pages of some documentation more rather then 90 pages.

    However, its a steep curve to learn.

  39. Aaron says:

    notsureonthis: don’t be so sure about that. Unnecessary gratitude is not a notable trait of successful empires.

  40. Aaron says:

    And I don’t believe Torrone gives a damn for the United States.

  41. vic says:

    It’s a fact that many Chinese semiconductors manufacturers don’t rely on exports as much as they used to, and tend to publish documentation in Chinese only. Therefore if you need to use these components in your design, you need to either have the documentation translated or learn the language. No need to get all defensive about it.

  42. pt says:

    @notsureonthis – “selling” out is when people give up, just become consumers and stop caring about how and where things are made. you’re welcome to sit at your computer, with everything being made in china and not participate at all – but don’t say someone is “selling out” when they choose to go further down the supply chain.

    you asked – “Are we then going to re-re-tool our libraries again after this so every thing is in chinese? ”

    i would make sure there are chinese language lessons available in what i consider “libraries” of the future – likely online with something like memrise where libraries could compete for the best scores.

    the future is multi-lingual, some may not like it. but the vast majority of humans on this planet are going to be speaking chinese followed by english (this has already happened).

    @aaron – “And I don’t believe Torrone gives a damn for the United States.” – i live and work 2 blocks form ground zero in nyc, pay taxes, run a biz, publish online/print freely. i manufacture goods and hire americans. the usa is best country in the world, if i didn’t love this place and what i’m doing, i’d leave.

    @vic is 100% correct, “many Chinese semiconductors manufacturers don’t rely on exports as much as they used to, and tend to publish documentation in Chinese only.”

  43. Michael D says:

    There are more Chinese English speakers than there are other English speakers combined.

    I think it’s safe to stick with English.

  44. pt says:

    @Michael D – but that doesn’t help when the data sheets, sample code and all materials are in chinese as the supply chain stays in china as china produces more goods for itself. if you only know english you’ll need to always rely on someone else for many many things.

  45. Ryan Schweitzer says:

    I’m sorry, but any language that relies on tonal differences to convey different meanings of the same word, or the more “efficient” usage of its alphabet, borders on Orwellian Newspeak. Which isn’t surprising, considering how China operates as a country (millions of executed & tortured citizens and slaves there can’t be wrong).

    Forgive my arrogance, but I’d rather not learn Chinese, like some sort of sell-out Borg assimilation victim (Yes, Phillip, even “going down further the supply chain” is selling out when you patronize a country that’s already pestilently invaded our economy with a glut of whorish manufacturing services and resulting cheap crap being output, and is even more of a sell-out as well as when you patronize a oppressive country with a horrid rash of civil rights violations (seems like most folks have forgot about Tianamen Square, Tibetan oppression, and Falun Gong, among other atrocities). If you want to go further down the supply chain, be at least a bit more socially responsible. There are other countries that a person could do business from as well (you gotta shop around :) ).

    Besides, English is already the lingua franca of international commerce already as others have mentioned here, and (dare I say) is the most universal language on earth. Why would I want to learn a language with a masochistic learning curve of a country whose existence is probably going to have its bottom fall out in the near future?

    Pardon my jingoism, but China is a country best left alone to self-destruct.

  46. blue carbuncle says:

    lol I should also report any manufacturer misusing the “sample” stamp to gut the already imbalanced import taxes. You guys know what I’m talking about…
    My favorites are the ones that at least ship the thing to their Uncle Lu Ho in Brooklyn, who then ships it to you.

    The main thing they did was the time they tried to poison my cat with their Pet Pride funk batch. Cancelled my Netflix subscription after that.

  47. pt says:

    @Ryan Schweitzer – please list places you buy electronics from where the components are not made in china. what computer are you using to type on to accuse me of being a borg?

    at best, you’ll just have a feel-good purchase where it’s “designed” in california but still made in china.

    i’m talking to the people who make many of the things you likely use or make now, i think that’s more socially responsible – many makers, mitch altman for example visit the factories to make sure the conditions are good for the workers before he will partner with them.

    i’d like to help people and countries become more like america by working with them, your strategy sounds like isolationism, are you sure you want to be like north korea?

    i think the more the usa works with others the better the world gets, you seem to disagree.

    the learning curve is not hard with chinese, you’ve just heard that repeated and not tried. this is part of the problem when people talk about things they do not know about and just repeat something they’ve heard – the borg you’re looking for, is you :)

  48. lzuka says:

    I’m with Will above. Yes, in the 80s everybody was supposed to learn Japanese. Now, it is Chinese, right? BS! Stick with English.

    English is the “lingua franca” of the business world. Unless you are planning to move to China, learning Chinese is a dumb idea. It takes way too much effort to learn how to read/write in Chinese. The world will never switch to a language that would require years of effort from everybody else in the globe.

  49. J says:

    @Hackerspacer

    Indian isn’t a language.

  50. Matt C says:

    Everybody learn Chineese? Only with such disrespectful lack of patriotism can our great country be knocked off from it’s #1 spot. How will China be #1 when it is fueled by the cheapest labor of any industrialized nation, and thier idea of engineering is stealing the intellectual property from more moral nations? Who would they steal from if they were #1?

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