[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. @lzuka – learning to read and write chinese is extremely easy, don’t believe what bloggy trolls say – try it, each letter gives you a clue as to what it means, it’s very easy.

  2. The “problem” most educated US-americans and brits seem to see is that people around them just know english and the british/us-american culture. Many us-americans have never been to a different country, which is quite understandeable, since you have to drive for hours before even reaching a different federal state. I’m from germany, if I get on a fast train I can travel through four whole countries in six hours if I want. From most places you can reach the country border in less than three hours, you don’t even need an airplane.

    Most europeans are fluent in at least two languages. Personally I am fluent in german, english and italian. I can easily read swedish, danish, norwegian, dutch, french, spanish and portuguese newspapers, and I learned enough turkish, czech and japanese to have simple conversations. This is by no means exceptional, 25% of all marriages in europe are already formed between people from different countries. In germany everybody who wants some form of higher education has to learn an additional language besides german and english.

    I think it is not really about Chinese. Or japanese, like in the 80s. It is about the us-american “elite”, who manages to leave the country, experiences the wonders of different cultures, and starts to feel somewhat inferior to the rest of the world. Every time some educated us-american person comes to europe they immediately start being ashamed of themselves for a million reasons.

    Don’t listen to this stupid talk. If one billion people speak chinese, that still means that seven billion are not. Every chinese child growing up in the near future will learn english at school. Like every german, japanese, turkish, brazilian etc. child. It may be funny and helpful to know more than english, but if you meet a random group of people form different cultures, your only common language will most likely be english. I travel to about 12 or 15 countries around the world every year, and there always is somebody who understands enough english to communicate. Learning chinese while the chinese are busy learning english ist just inefficient. In ten years everybody will probably tell you you have to learn Hindi, or brazilian portoguese, or russian etc. Whichever is the language of the fastest growing economy at that point in time.

  3. Thanx to my ex, I know a few Catonese curse words. Personlyy every oriental I have ever met were less than honorable. I would not trust one of them with the back of my hand.

  4. Lol, alright I’ll put aside 30 minutes next week to learn chinese…
    Why 30 minutes? Well I also need to learn the 5000 characters and the technical words :]

    Note: I might use the 30 minutes to become a surgeon instead, or pick up everything there is to know about quantum mechanics.

  5. @karl…

    you wrote – “Don’t listen to this stupid talk. If one billion people speak chinese, that still means that seven billion are not. Every chinese child growing up in the near future will learn english at school.”

    that does not address the specific points i brought up in the article that you obviously did not read.

    ==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.==

    you also wrote “Learning chinese while the chinese are busy learning english ist just inefficient. In ten years everybody will probably tell you you have to learn Hindi, or brazilian portoguese, or russian etc. Whichever is the language of the fastest growing economy at that point in time.”

    10 years ago i picked up some japanese and it really helped me, i spent a lot of time in japan, did biz there, went to visit for fun 2 times and have many friends there.

    i plan to do the same with chinese, while i could get by without knowing anything as you’d like others to do, i think you get a richer and fuller experience knowing the language.

    lastly, if 10 years from now i need to learn hindi, i will. this is likely why i’ll be here writing articles talking about new things and you will not :)

    i started hack-a-day almost 10 years ago thinking diy electronics would be interesting to a lot of people.

    don’t fear change.

  6. I read War and Peace last week. I realized my French and especially my German could use some work.

    As for Chinese, I don’t think I would every be literate in a language with such a difficult writing method. I doubt if I’ll ever make sense of Arabic backward scribbles or little pictures of houses and birds, I’m still trying to find the restrooms in Japan.

  7. @SynthShoppingDotCom
    “but it doesn’t hurt to browse webpages in foreign languages from time to time just to open up our eyes.”

    Probably wouldn’t hurt, but I’m unsure how doing so would help in opening my eyes when I can’t read the language. I do read English language news from foreign news sources though. As it is that’s the best I can do to broaden my education in regards to world events.

  8. Sorry, but no thank you… English is way better, no tonal crap. Much more technological.

    Even if China looks great economically, the bottom line is they are communist.

  9. @b1r6m4n – that does not seem to be correct according to scholars and experts on the subject…

    “China is only communist in the most limited sense,” Suzanne Ogden, a China scholar and professor at Northeastern University told The Inquirer. “There is a one-party system of rule. Apart from that, there’s no pursuit of communist ideology or serious pursuit of Marxism. There are a lot of wealthy people in China.”

    most experts say “they’re unforgiving, shrewd, money-hungry capitalists like the rest of us.”

    lastly, who owns the most of our (USA) debt? china does, if you have any debt, you’re likely working for china.

    1. That is so incorrect it is shameful.
      Most of the US debt is held by entities within the US.
      China does not even hold 8% of the US debt.

      Besides in ten years they’ll be saying you must learn Malay,Hindi,Russian or what ever language is used in the region that has the fastest growth at the time.
      All parts that are actually worth buying have English docs.
      I would not want to ruin may projects with cheap knock offs.
      I can think of a lot of more useful things I’d rather spend 2200 hours learning.

  10. This article makes an argument similar to the one I use when I explain why I would like to learn Russian, but with a distinction: Russia has excellent technical education, but it is anything but an economic powerhouse, so there are plenty of skilled hackers bored and unemployed, making interesting things on shoestring budgets. Chinese might be good if you are working for a company like Adafruit, but if you are a maker without corporate backing you are probably better off being able to understand the hack writeups coming out of Russia (including the ones that get posted on HAD fairly frequently) than to be able to speak brokenly to an eighth of the people involved in manufacturing your components (and incomprehensibly to the other seven eighths).

  11. I think learning Chinese is a great idea if you can first decide which dialect to learn, (or maybe them all?) and then find NATIVE SPEAKERS to speak it with on a regular basis.

    Maybe you do know people who you can do that with, maybe you don’t.

    I do, but even so its very hard to find the time.

    But I agree with the OP, I think its increasingly useful for maker types to speak Chinese, although which dialect, is less certain, as Shenzhen (and China’s main electronics manufacturing area) is in Cantonese territory, and Mandarin is a different language – unintelligible to many of them, too.

    Jiangsu (near Shanghai) is also a growing manufacturing area, and Jiangsu speaks Mandarin.

    Only the written language – *Simplified* Chinese, is the same.

    But there is an exception there too. Taiwan speaks Mandarin and uses the old style characters. Hong Kong speaks Cantonese (and English) and uses the old characters too, (or used to.)

    Thousands of them. One character = one concept/word.

    Its not phonetic like English is.

  12. The person who said “most people would benefit more from learning more math” is right.

    Math is the universal language of technology. Put several mathematicians in a room and they will communicate well even if they have no languages in common besides math.

    They do need a blackboard, though.. and chalk.

  13. PT

    “who owns the most of our (USA) debt? china does,”

    That is factually incorrect – but close. China own’s the largest share of US debt (around a third), but not most of the debt carried by the US.

    Also, I’m happy you wrote this article. It is arrogant to call English the “language of business.” Perhaps this is the case for those who do business in English :p But should the tide change and English speakers hold less than a lion’s share of global biz, that will not be the case.

    Full disclosure – I do business in China – mass production even. I’m by no means fluent (but is a goal), but I can get by on a production floor and know bad news is coming before translated into English.

    I can also attest to the huge volume of parts made in china for assembly in china. It’s why my company is doing manufacturing in China (that and China is physically closer to our customers than the USA). Very few places are well established and have such manufacturing density that 80%+ of my product’s components are made within a 20 mile radius of the factory.

    To those saying Math is the universal language… There’s some truth to this – but Math is a language without a character set. Do you think everyone uses 1, 2, 3…? It would be, again, arrogant for us to assume everyone uses Arabic numerals. Even if everyone does – you’ll get stuck on units. The simplified Chinese character for Ampere is not “A” or “I” and its a very useful thing to know when reading spec sheets ;)

    All that said, there are services where native speakers will translate text for you. Last time I checked (some time ago), the rates were around 7 cents per word.

  14. Being Chinese but born in Canada, I’ve learned English as a primary language but have found extreme difficulty learning Chinese, and have quit attempting to do so two years ago. Couldn’t learn a thing.

    This is just my opinion, but English is the language of today and tomorrow. Chinese is highly non-expansible as you’ll find a lot of Chinese articles with bits of English here and there, and soon it’s gonna have to go. That’s my two (sleep-deprived) cents for ya.

  15. I agree. China dumbed down its official language about 25 years ago, getting rid of accumulated culural wisdom in words related to religion, so Chinese is already dead, learn English or Hebrew. To move toward world peace, every nation should dump other languages.

    Topic reminds me of difficulty of remembering anything for long. Years ago I could pray and things would happen. Now without a community of like minded folk it happens but it’s hard to stay in the zone. I can do logic proving via the Bible nobody alive has been to church and show how anyone can start one (at wantdesk.com) but making it real via prayer hasn’t happened. It’s nice to have a community to help.

  16. One thing that I think China’s government has going with its people is that the government’s continued “franchise” is intimately linked to economic well being of the people. Thats in contrast to the US where politicians seem to only pay lip service to the well being of 3/4 of the country, while giving huge tax breaks to the wealthy 1%. I get the impression that in the final analysis, economic wellbeing is more important than politics or ideology. Politics is sort of a luxury, as shown by the fact that its usually rich people who get involved in it, the common people are often justified in mistrusting them.

    That said, I think I was either the first or second American to be out in the streets protesting in June 1989 (my friend and I were news junkies, who thought we would be joined by hundreds, but there was only one (Chinese-born) person there before us). Americans should put their energy into improving the lot of all working people, everywhere, The reason jobs have gone to China are low wages and increasingly, relatively high skill level there, combines with tax policies that seem to encourage it by US companies. We should do what China does, try to keep jobs here, (even if it is against WTO laws- break them.) and we should also try to improve working conditions and the technology culture everywhere, including China. Ultimately, everybody wins. The US and Chinese people have a lot in common. China is sort of the US of Asia in that sense.. (they are a very proud people…and they have reason to be, much like us.)

  17. At least half of each of our six or seven figure debt share – our personal anchors, as it may, did not go to anything connected with us, it went to deliberately wasteful wars and huge tax breaks for the well-connected-rich, many of whom pay no taxes. Also many US corporations pay no taxes, especially if they keep all their activities that generate money offshore. They have the US military might to protect them, but increasingly, their US presence in terms of hiring is minimal.

    The web site http://ctj.org deconstructs the tax situation and the net result is that the reason we are headed towards banana-republicism is not China, China actually has saved their face.. so to speak..its the “grab as much as you can, while you can” attitude weve seen since the 80s – the loot and pillage mentality – in other words, greed.

    Like in the European countries we see on TV, but in terms of looting and corruption, in all probability our problems will be shown to be much much worse.

    Like a big Ponzi scheme.

  18. China isn’t “communist” any more than the US is still a “democracy”.

    In the US, corporations ARE people, with constitutional protected rights, for example, their money is their free speech.. In Hong Kong, corporations, i.e. corporate persons, vote! They have their own House to represent them.

    In the US, a few corporations have run for public office, I don’t know how their campaigns played out.

    They don’t die, they dont breathe air, but they vote. And run for office. Pretty good for a group of ‘citizens” who became vested with humanity by means of a fraud!


  19. Spark Fun Inc. might want to consider running for public office in Colorado, like Murray Hill Inc. did in Maryland. The SCOTUS “Citizens United v Federal Election Commission” decision paved the way for corporate candidates like Spark Fun Inc. to run. Murray Hill, Inc, wanted space on the GOP ticket, which I think is appropriate. Spark Fun might even be able to get Federal matching funds.

  20. I read the political posts for anything to do with the thread topic learning the Chinese Language (which Oregon Legislator Dennis Richardson promoted in a six-part report as a way to get better tips) and only found money as free speech. While money may motivate talk of volts and amps, I don’t think there is a linguistic translation of those terms into money.

    As one news interview recently said, anyone who trusts a politician ought to have his head examined. Their main error is hierarchy instead of equality, trying to control others. Second, it’s lying. To move toward honesty we need a language that supports Christian values. Chinese no longer does.

  21. China will not always dominate manufacturing esp if robotic assembly keeps on getting more advanced and energy stays expensive.

    If oil stays above $80 a barrel expect a lot of the manufacturing in China to end up moving closer locations like Mexico.

    India also is challenging China in the tech sector but they use English and Hindi as their two main languages.
    Unlike China India is developing their economy in a more sustainable fashion vs as quickly as possible.

    As for a universal language English is the language of today and the language of tomorrow.

  22. I need to correct mass_producer China does not even own a third of the national debt it’s only owns around 800 to 900 billion of 14 trillion.
    The largest owner is the Federal Reserve and Intergovernmental Holdings at 5.351 Trillion or more then five times what China owns.

    Personally I think China should wave their share of the debt as all the junk they sold the US fell apart.

  23. I’ve hired several people in China on remote software projects. The ones I hire all email good English.

    The best was a grad student. The worst was a computer teacher. As they say, those who can do, those who can’t teach.

    The average American doesn’t need to know the Chinese language to do business with China. If you’re working for a company that is likely to send you to China then maybe you should, (until China gives up their language).

  24. I think that the labor-management struggles of the past and the longstanding right-wing backlash in the form of various stealth campaigns to return to the Lochner era (i.e. “right tto work” repealing wage/hour laws.. etc) are hugeley destructive because the end result will be nothing less than the destruction of the middle class.. the consumer class..

    So the cost of defunding the labor-friendly Democratic party by defunding the union members and exporting their jobs overseas will kill the gosse that laid the golden egg.. prosperity ..

    This mindset has left us in a terrible situation.

    Why are so many American businesses so scared of the various cooperative models that seem to work elsewhere in the world?

    Without teamwork between everyone in a company its very hard to succeed globally any more.

    Our old but still prevalent model of the world and our place in it is designed to promote the “rich people are rich because they are better than the rest of us” meme.. But lots indicates that a huge factor helping us “succeed” was luck.. We were lucky to be geographically apart from That and a unique moment in time that we were able to use to our nations advantage left a whole generation thinking that prosperity for all was a birthright..

    . Half a million American men and women died fighting the Axis powers in a huge world war that left the industrial areas of both Europe and Asia destroyed. But at the same time, the ovarall health of Americans so improved that demographically, world war two resulted in more working age people and higher production..

    Other countries lost entire generations..to war.. In some cases, tens of millions of people.

    Most of the European and Asian countries either suffered huge losses – proportionately many times greater than ours, or had other losses afterwards.. For example, there was a huge famine in China that killed untold millions of Chinese.. the so called “Great Leap Forward” – *perhaps the biggest famine in human history in terms of lives lost* And it still is not acknowledged, except by rural Chinese.. Huge areas were depopulated, many people literally ate the dead.. or their children.. The only book on this nightmare and its causes is Jasper Becker’s “Hungry Ghosts”

    We could learn something important from it. the Great Leap Forward famine was caused by a kind of insane arrogance and hubris that we might also recognize is caused by putting ideology over people’s needs. In our case, its the free trade ideology that makes American politicians encourage the corporate exporting of US jobs as an acceptable exchange for overseas (more profitable) “emergent” markets.. which create no jobs here.. but do make the campaign donors richer..

    .. in their case it was collectivization and the benefits of a badly thought out but politically convenient pseudoscience.. “Lysenkoism”.. as well as groupthink that taught “cadres” that it was better to wildly overestimate crop yields than be seen as a failure when “everybody was doing it”

    There is a huge cost if we continue underestimating the importance of both education and intellectual freedom for our economic success….

    Instead we are fed a lie.. the lie that we are doing great, that we are in the midst of a “recovery” and that we only need to cut taxes on the rich still more.. (we are already taxing them less than any other developed i.e. – OECD nations besides chile and mexico and of course, many corporations get away with paying no taxes..)

    meanwhile the rest of the world moves forward.. and the US becomes more economically stratified.. rapidly..

    Our outdated world view is based on the postwar situation – the US was the only developed nation that wasn’t horribly devastated by the war.

    Things are completely different now but many Americans still seem convinced that the world revolves around us. That we dont have to work hard to get the kind of outcome we seem to feel entitled to. meanwhile the rich are taking us to the cleaners – looting this country, literally.

    Its both pitiful and tragic as national policy is made by politicians while espousing these profoundly wrong assumptions. Meanwhile, the rest of the world moves forward. they have their own problems too, of course, but at least their world view rarely- if ever- seems even remotely as myopic as the average persons here.

    We are in for a horrible awakening when the big Ponzi scheme being promoted by the banks and their Washington servants collapses, as it someday (soon) must.

    Average Americans have not taken that money.. But we will be handed the bill.

  25. id agree with Kirk Fraser with the caveat that ALL of the world’s great religions seem to converge on one theme.. “treat your fellow human beings as you would treat yourself”. If Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and probably every other spiritually aware humans said one thing – that is it. If we get plugged in to that wisdom not only will we be happy and healthy, we’ll also do well economically without needing the bag of coercive tricks.. And someday we will wake up looking at the earth from space and realize that it doesn’t look like Google Earth does.. in the sense that THERE ARE NO BOUNDARIES.. Its also the only one we’ve got. And we all are far more similar than we are different. All one family.

  26. I see most people here are missing the point of “languages” and what they actually are.

    They are the meta-structure for intellectual discourse in a given society and encoded within each distinct language is HOW those people think in that way, WHY they do the things they do and in the manner they do it in.

    A language of merely 60000 symbols is like RISC to the CISC of mutable languages of the western world.
    and like this analogy, there are advantages and disadvantages to either position in language.
    However this DOES explain why computing and programming and logic comes easily to the Chinese mind, the Chinese language is very much like code.

    …and for the bigots who decry that “America / Europe / Russia / [whoever besides China] did it the proper hard way and didn’t use barbaric methods and tactics and so-called small government” that’s bull Black people as Slaves? Anyone? and it took +300years for America to grow to that size and China has done this in 30 years.

    There will be social upheaval in Red (soon to be Greenback) China but the Chinese pay as much attention to politics as the wind pays to the farts within it.

    The Chinese GET ON WITH IT and make it work, or they find someone who can. They keep the work in the family / clan because that is the best way to prepare their kids for what the real world expects of them: Hard Work and the merit of earning a living instead of … what does America teach it’s to do these days anyway? Consume?
    Who makes money from that?
    Oh the Federal Reserve does they make all the money.

  27. I don’t speak Chinese, though I’ve heard many times that its exceedingly good at representing some kinds of concepts in literature and especially poetry. On the other hand, its difficult to learn.

    Written Chinese is one language, spoken Chinese is (maybe a dozen) OTHER languages. The two aren’t as connected as most Americans think, because China speaks so many languages. Chinese from one area often cannot understand the spoken language from elsewhere. Since Chinese is written in characters – each of which represent a concept, not a sound, they can usually communicate in writing, though.. (although there are different writing styles, too, for example, Simplified Chinese is the PRC’s written language, the longer old style characters are the norm in Taiwan. (and until recently, in many US Chinatowns.)

    Its confusing for us and them too.

    So, its not the simple situation many Americans think it is.

  28. I think its great that this explosion in interest in electronics is happening, but we should be realistic about its chance to rejuvenate the economy in the current atmosphere.

    The factors driving the loss of middle class jobs in the US are not going to change just because we have millions of Americans with new skills. Jobs are going oversaes because its profitable for companies to do so. There are similar factors driving the loss of unskilled jobs.

    Electronics skills are personally satisfying and extremely useful. They lead to amazingly inventive people, and they have enormous potential. But electronics/computer skills, in and of themselves, in a tight economy are not enough to get someone a good lifetime job except in the most extreme an example. They are not a college degree in an engineering field, although they might serve as a big first step on teh road to one.

    When the economy is good, people without college degrees get hired, when it isn’t, they dont.

    Within the next 50 years, we will have machines that think. Much sooner than that, all scriptable jobs will be done by AI.

    That isn’t going to change. So save your money now, while you still have a job, for you and your descendents, in the future, the competition for every job – every single job, is going to be fierce. Those without jobs will starve.

  29. Learning Mandarin is worthwhile, but only if you’re working in China. In my experience, the Chinese people don’t take English studies very seriously. I believe English will continue to prevail online, in science, & in business. Why? Mandarin is a tangled ball of ancient yarn! The writing system, while unquestionably beautiful (in Taiwan & HongKong, at least,) is tremendously complicated to learn, & easily forgotten, even for native Chinese! Nothing beats English with it’s 26 letters that even a three-year-old can utilize.

    1. China’s economy grew too fast and is too coupled to US demand.
      Those manufacturing jobs can move elsewhere over night.

      I think India and Malaysia will be the next big thing in Asia.

      The thing is they often know English and their governments are far easier to deal with.

      Another factor against China physics.
      A train to going to Mexico uses a small fraction of the energy that a container ship uses to cross the Pacific.
      If the cost of energy keeps rising at some point it will be cheaper to pay the wage levels in Mexico or Brazil and save on shipping.

      The first business man to take advantage of this will clean up.

  30. I lost all respect for the man after reading the article.
    20 years ago we where supposed to all learn Japanese.
    Heck 20 years from now it could be Hindi we’ll have to learn.

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