The Language Indicator: If You Want To Stay On Top Of Technology, You Need To Speak Chinese
from the the-world-is-changing dept
For all of the lamentation of American students' perennially-disappointing math and science scores, it's also true that we've been pretty good at avoiding the resulting negative consequences that one might expect. The U.S. has maintained its status as an economic and cultural powerhouse, and consequently kept its universities and research labs stocked with the world's best talent — regardless of whether it's home-grown or not. But is this sustainable? The state of the American empire is, of course, much too large a topic to tackle here. But we can at least glance at a couple of interesting and relevant phenomena from the world of tech. First and most obvious is the the case of the weakened dollar. Many small businesses like SlySoft have been switching their currency of choice in the wake of the Euro's ascendance. Bunnie Huang, famed Xbox hacker and current chief engineer for Chumby included the following aside in a recent post on his personal blog: "I figure I might as well accept the trend that the US dollar is on its way out, and treat Euros as the currency of reference." (Incidentally, if you haven't yet seen it, Bunnie's fascinating series of posts on outsourcing electronic manufacturing to China is not to be missed.)
But Bunnie makes another interesting observation in that post — one that's probably more important:
This actually highlights an important limitation: English speakers can’t search Chinese web pages. There are volumes of knowledge out there in Chinese that remain closed to us. As the Chinese tech sector grows, it is becoming more important to make efforts to search in Chinese. Just try searching for USB mass storage controller ASICs, or digital picture frame SoCs on Google in English, and then go and open up one of these devices and compare your findings. I bet you’ll find that the chips most frequently used in these popular devices are best searched for in Chinese.
Of course, this is hardly the first time that a technical field's dominant language has fragmented or shifted. Derek Lowe has written thoughtfully about these issues as they pertain to his own discipline — chemistry — and it's useful to keep his contrary point in mind: far from declining, Lowe says that English is consolidating its hold on the sciences.
But it seems obvious that superior documentation existing in Chinese is at least indicative of the Chinese tech industry's continued rise. The English speakers of the world have no doubt benefited from the network effects that come with being native speakers of engineering's lingua franca. It'll be interesting to see how the industry — and our government — responds to the loss of this advantage.