Nǐ hǎo 你好! Permanently on my desk, and everywhere I go is an iPad/iPhone app called Pleco, which has my custom flash cards that I use to quiz myself about 300 Chinese (Mandarin) characters. I’m getting pretty good with the help of a weekly instructor found via Craigslist, daily walks through Chinatown in NYC, and a website called Memrise. In less than a month I’ve been able to specifically translate (a lot of) the data sheets for products I’m sampling/purchasing for my job at Adafruit Industries, and for fun/downtime I’m translating some of the Chinese graffiti in Blade Runner (I always wanted to know what they said).
At this point, you might be asking, “Why are you wasting your time learning such a hard language? Computers can do it — why don’t you hire a translator?” Or “the USA will make electronic components again, really!” Well, I’m going to tell you why and how I’ve decided to devote the next 2+ years or so of my free time to learning (Mandarin) Chinese with my own deadline to be fluent by 2016.
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.
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It is compulsory for the Chinese to learn English in primary school, so there is no pressing need. sure not every Chinese engineer, marketer, etc. knows perfect English, but it’s enough to communicate.
You go learn Chinese. I will go learn French so I can work anywhere throughout Europe…they are better engineers anyway.
Phil, I think it’s great that you’re learning a new language – especially one as tricky and varied as Chinese. Personally, I’d like to learn Japanese. However, to be doing it based on the notion that China is the new manufacturing power house, and will always be that way, is a bit short sighted. China is merely the flavor of the month. What will the popular flavor change to three years from now? As the Chinese manufacturing infrastructure matures, labor will demand wages and benefits on par with those of other developed nations. Suddenly, manufacturing iPads in Shenzhen will no longer be the cheap option. China’s manufacturing bubble will burst, and the show will move on to the next up-and-coming developing economy. It’s certainly happened here, it happened in India, it will happen in China. There’s no stopping the process, it’s an economic "cycle of life". This can already be seen in some manufacturing moving over to Viet Nam and – Oh my goodness – North Korea. All I’m saying is, keep your language learning options open. The only certainty is that things change.
@joe – knowing chinese is helpful for many languages so we think knowing english and mandarin keep our options very open. between phil and ladyada we have english, hebrew, some japanese, some spanish, some french and now – chinese. that’s prettty good we think.
we do not think “china’s manufacturing bubble will burst” but only time will tell, phil’s article can be re-visited in 5 years and we’ll see how things matched up 🙂
One of the few places left is Africa and it is curious to see China starting to invest there.
My take away from his article is "Watch out, China will overtake the US so you better learn to speak Chinese!" When China does become the #1 economy that will not change the fact that business is done in English. Isolated cases of a language barrier? Sure, and that it with any language.
Remember, the gate keepers are in North America and Europe. China is a manufacturing hub. In terms of quality and design expertise they are subpar.
I have been to Quanta, Hisense, Haier, TCL, Foxxconn, and other companies in Shenzhen, Qingdao, etc. You will be surprised at the quality (I use that term loosley) of product. China’s lack of technical ability and quality assurance is trumped by one thing: money. They want CHEAP – design robustness be damned. Chinese companies rely on the expertise of American and European engineers for smartphone, computer, tablet, and automotive designs. You will be surprised how many Chinese engineers have no clue how a circuit works when I ask them. They simply pulled it from multiple reference designs that are bolted together from what they find on the web.
Going back to learning Chinese, I would argue that it is not a requirement even for those who deal with China. As a matter of personal growth? Absolutely. But I do not agree that one needs to know Chinese to work or do business in China.