[Phillip Torrone] On Why All Makers 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.

135 thoughts on “[Phillip Torrone] On Why All Makers Should Learn Chinese

  1. Just my 2 cents, english is spoken in so many other places around the world in business, and if chineese want to manufacture my products, they can learn english. I will however try my best to learn theirs as well out of respect.

  2. Wouldn’t it be better for rebuilding America to translate the paper work you need to English with a small number of people learning Chinese then to adopt another countries language as the standard? Are we rebuilding or redesigning ?
    I have nothing against china but I still go out of my way to get things done in the US if I can. IMHO you dont rebuild your country by selling out to another. You need to take pride in your own country to do that.
    You could also argue German is a good choice. But again are we rebuilding Germany, China, or America.

  3. I encourage everyone to learn another language, I’ve been teaching myself German with some success, and it’s been really enjoyable. That said, international business is still largely done in English. The problem with learning Chinese, is that it’s only really spoken in China. English spread across the globe a couple hundred years ago as a result of imperialism. Because English is the de facto language of business, I don’t see hobbyists or hackers needing to learn it. But, from a business perspective, the Chinese market is exploding, so if you plan on going from the hacker/hobbyist world to selling around the world, learning Chinese might be very useful, just try to understand what your market is, and who your customers will likely be.

  4. So far, people all around the world are still learning English like crazy, and while there’s a drift towards learning Chinese in business circles, there’s a much larger culturally-fueled drift towards learning English. Everyone does it. Even the Chinese.

    Chinese may be the language with the most speakers worldwide, but if anyone is on vacation in any country they don’t know the language of, they’ll try English before they try Chinese. Why? Because nobody learns Chinese.

    So, IMHO, in the long run Chinese will die out just like all other languages except for different kinds of English. (Don’t mistake my opinion for laziness to learn. English is my fourth language, I just really think that’s what’s gonna happen.)

  5. don’t be so stuck up. the reason why so many people speak english in the first place is because it used to be great to do business with the US.

    maybe in a couple decades english will become what french is nowadays: a language some people outside english-speaking countries speak just because they like it, not because it is important for business.

  6. I have worked in China twice, 3 months each time. I think it’s always good to pick up some out of courtesy but my experience was that many Chinese spoke better English than most Americans.
    I do a lot of international work and I am always told, by non-Americans, that English is the international language of business.

  7. Funny how so many, who know written, mathematically oriented programming languages, are afraid of most spoken languages.

    I guess it’s because the spoken languages aren’t as precise as math, and the computer doesn’t laugh at you when you screw up. :P

  8. I think that China is overrated. They can’t keep on growing like they do. And do they have any other skills than producing cheap stuff and imitating western technology? The reverse holds: the Chinese should actually learn English.

  9. if you go to china unless you are in big city, otherwise there are not many guy can speak english. That means if you go to china for bussness language won’t be a problem.

  10. @justin, if you read past the headline and read the actual article, you’ll see why i think it’s handy for makers who do business/electronics. it’s not for everyone, but there are more and more makers going from hobbyists to businesses. i provide specific examples, from sparkfun to EMSL & tv-b-gone to chumby – prolific makers visiting china (and some learning the language).

  11. the only thing from china that i like is their food. i don’t like the people, i don’t like the government, i don’t give a flying f. that its economy is booming, i dont like child labour, i dont like their honour based etiquette… seriously, i like learning languages, i speak english, french and im learning spanish and portugeae… screw mandarin a millionfold

  12. By the time parity comes (if it does), what are the chances that different languages will be a barrier at all? Just look at the progress of online translators just in the past 5 years.

    Or possibly there is reluctance to learn something that ends up being a dead end. I have no interest in learning Cobol even though a number of people can make megabucks with it.

  13. konrad adenauer(chancellor of west germany)was asked (by an english speaker)what the secret to Germanys post war industrial and export success was,and how it could be imitated,he replied I want to sell to you I speak English you want to sell to me speak German

  14. I have no problem learning another language, if I think that it’s going to be useful to me. For example, I plan on learning Japanese, because I encounter it a lot more than I encounter Chinese. It’s a plain and simple fact in my world.

    And to those of you saying that we should learn Chinese because we are going to be doing business with China more and more, I ask you this: Why not just say “Learn English or we won’t deal with you”? The sword cuts both ways, I’m willing to bet that they’d be willing to train a few people in English to keep our business. Or should we just give in to them now and become New China instead of America?

    English is the international business of language. That’s a fact. Let’s keep it that way, alright?

  15. + 1 for learning another language, whatever it is.
    I still find hard to believe that so little people learn to speak Spanish while there are almost 50 million Latinos living in America…

    BTW don’t use software if you want to learn another language, just learn the basics and travel a little, if it’d work foreign language teachers would have ceased to exist a long time ago…

  16. They are only a ‘super power’ because of their government assisted management techniques..a nice way of saying it..

    America did it without stacking on top of each other and being threatened by militant supervisors.. we’re not cool :(

  17. I don’t see it. English is the international language of business. A (chinese) business which has no documention in english can’t be taken serious. So if you want to be big on the international market, you’ll put your stuff in english. It’s an economical paradoxon.
    It’s of cause a diffence when you work in a foreign country, then you should learn their language regardless which country.
    I’m saying that as a German, not an American who tend to refuse learning foreign languages because you already speak english (sorry but you guys get allways a bit arrogant when it comes to the english language).

  18. It’s odd to say all makers and then qualify it with business communication rather than project type communication. Most of us don’t do serious business with companies where it’d be useful to know Chinese…

  19. Having learnt Chinese myself, I would encourage anyone to learn a Chinese language, if nothing more than being a fascinating experience. Though I do not claim to be amazing, being able to carry out a conversation in another language with someone who does not speak my own is a great feeling.

    On the business side of things, if you are willing to read and write Chinese then you can open yourself to a world of companies who do not communicate in English. Or if you are doing business face to face, you will be able to get yourself a much better deal by speaking the lingo (or eves drop in on when you’re not getting a good deal!).

    Please steer clear of Rosetta Stone for learning any Chinese language. As anyone with a basic knowledge of Chinese languages (or a quick google will tell you) they are tonal, so the pitch you say a word at with effect accuracy or meaning of what you are trying to say. Rosetta Stone (while good for other languages) does not account for this in any way.

  20. Screw the language barrier. If the chinese manufacturers would merely proofread their own damn data sheets and fill them with relevant and clear information, whatever the language, I’d be on cloud nine. It’s simply amazing that some of these companies survive, publishing data sheets of such poor caliber.

    That said, I try very hard to NOT do business with the chinese. It’s difficult to sponsor a country whose government imprisons and silences so many people for expressing themselves, among their other human rights violations.

  21. As a maker who has started a business around my hobby, my business sources parts and service from China, and we communicate with them solely in English, even though I am myself Chinese.

    If you want to learn Chinese, then great, expand your horizons, learn new skills etc. But it is by no means absolutely necessary now, nor will it be absolutely necessary in the near future.

    China is rising economically, but it’s not without its own problems. And America isn’t going to disappear overnight. I don’t see how it would be possible to replace English as the de-facto language of business communications within the next few decades without some kind of massive heist involving a billion chinamen

  22. I think Chinese being a must is only half truth. China will not dominate in manufacturing in the future as it has up till now. Inflation and salary increases in China is/has caught up to that in the U.S. Their is a trend of companies exiting China to other parts of Asia and now Latin America for cheaper labor. So for a maker to learn Chinese would be nice, but not essential. One seems to forget that English is a global language and not as rare as once thought.

  23. They’d love that. Then we could be the feeble minded business partners every profit loving capitalist wishes they had.

    I think English is only the “language of business” due to its ambiguity and propensity for abuse. Its easy to confuse people when one word has 6 meanings. Lets make it simpler by adopting an independently evolved language with over 10,000 characters, based on a culture which shares little with the rest of the world. I’m sure that will work out great.

  24. I have certainly considered it… I think personally I would find it very challenging. I have the benefit of knowing many students from China so when I need something translated better than machine I go to them.

    However it would make talking to suppliers much easier and China is here to stay for part supplying. In short if you think it would be fun do it. If you just want it for business, wait until you have enough volume that you need to talk to manufactures. They aren’t going to sell you 10 of something anyway…

  25. While it would be good to learn a different language, we seem to be getting along fine with English. If you’re a “maker” who does not have a maker-related business or is not doing business with chinese companies, there is no need to learn it. Even if you did business with China it’s still not a requirement.
    For example, China is the largest producer of rice, and rice is in a lot of food products. Yet I’m willing to bet most food companies that use rice from China don’t know Chinese.
    Chinese takes years to learn and even then you may still sound like a child when you speak it.
    Honestly I can’t see the average maker doing that just to buy parts or read a datasheet.

    I’m sorry to say it feels like this is just Phil doing something and wanting everyone else to do it too.

  26. every time I see “China’s global GDP share will likely bypass that of the US in a few short years” I want to bang their head off a desk. China’s problems make the US’s look like nothing. The only reason why everyone and their brother doesn’t know it is the massive firewall, and oppressive regime that kills everyone that speaks out. China is bursting at the seams and is so close to civil war, we will more than likely see it in not just our lifetimes, but next few years.

  27. GDP is not necessarily an indicator of reality.

    And the Chinese, in their rapid economic expansion, seem to have lost their grip on reality.

    Want to see something amazing/scary? Look up the “ghost cities” of China. Entire cities are being built, not because of actual need; but based on economic speculation and greed. Many are massive, with homes for millions, public and government buildings, businesses locations, and even megamalls. And then they’re left completely abandoned, to fall apart with time and disuse.

    Here’s a good link, with satellite photos showing the scale of these cities:


    Corruption and waste are growing faster in China than their economy. This is only one dramatic and visible example. Sooner or later, reality comes around, and the resulting adjustment is not going to be pleasant.

    A little more reality for you:

    1) English is the third most natively spoken language in the world, after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. But English is much easier to learn than Chinese, giving it an indisputable advantage as an international language of business; regardless of economics.

    2) I deal with Chinese companies just fine, on a regular basis, in English.

    3) Products for which datasheets are available only in Chinese typically aren’t worth bothering with. They tend not to be available to the average person, at least not in any sane quantity. Often they’re cheap products of poor quality and reliability. And even without being able to understand a Chinese-only datasheet, you can still tell that many are poorly written and hastily thrown together. Why would I want to learn Chinese for that?

  28. @chris – you didn’t read my article re: “Products for which datasheets are available only in Chinese typically aren’t worth bothering with.” that’s not correct.

    “For me, each day for the last 5+ years, my exposure to Chinese has increased exponentially. Daily emails to suppliers, phone calls late at night (time zone differences), and looking at data sheets to figure out what’s what. One of the things that you’ll notice when you get components, or let’s say something like LCD screens, directly from China is that the data sheet and code examples are written in Chinese. This is because it’s not meant to be used by anyone else besides other Chinese manufacturers for their products/assembly.”

    i can buy the exact same LCDs for example that go in to high priced “finished” goods from china that are marked up, because i can work directly with the source i can not only get better pricing but design changes if needed.

    as you said, mandarin is the most spoken language in the world, and while some continue to say it’s hard i am find reading it “easy” compared to other languages i’ve attempted to learn.

    as far as ghost towns go every country has these, have you visited detroit lately?

  29. It’s not true, that the chinese do nothing else then copy stuff…
    While searching for ways to hack my digtal picture frame I surfed around some chinese websites and there is a whole second internet with a lot of in depth information.;)
    For example the chip I searched for was only realy documented in chinese because the whole picture frame was developped there so no need to publish english datasheets (and the chip was developped by an american company!)
    A lot of hardware is completely developpped in china and only some “western” company puts it’s logo on it…

  30. Personally, I’ve decided to start to work on a biological hack for my ear. I call it “babelfish”… just kidding!

    Seriously, China’s rise in global influence is real and, barring a cataclysm of global proportions, surpassing the West is inevitable. (Many Westerners seem to forget that Chinese civilization goes back 1000s of years before anything like it rose in the West.) The rest of us need to figure out how to embrace the changes and learn how to benefit from them. Learning Mandarin Chinese is a great way to start.

    Other languages for Americans to consider in a “multi-polar” world: Spanish (duh!) and Portuguese since our hemispheric neighbors and nearest trade partners speak these. As China’s influence increases, strong alliances will be needed to counter any “overreaching” of this nascent superpower. No one will be able to do it alone.

    PS: Kudos to HAD and other “Maker/Hacker” forums for bringing up this topic.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.