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.

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Comments on “The Language Indicator: If You Want To Stay On Top Of Technology, You Need To Speak Chinese”

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Jason Still (profile) says:

Re: Bullshit !!!

I find your refutation of Tom’s article most astute, angry dude. You make some very good counterpoints and offer such significant evidence for each. However, perhaps next time you could be a bit more succinct, as your analysis was nearly too long for my feeble mind to bear. I still eagerly await information on where I might read more of your brilliant insights.

Iron Chef says:

Chinese is the new Spanish

You have no idea. Most Senior Manager-levels at my company have two-sided business cards- One side English, the other Chineese.

After much debate, my niece (13) decided to start learning Mandarin. Reason: Over 3 Billion People already know it.

When you consider the amount of trade with China and put it in relation with trade between France, Germany, or wherever the devil they speak Latin, you can start to understand the value of being able to speak Chinese within the decade.

Jason says:

Re: Chinese is the new Spanish

I agree with you. My dad works for a company that has a Beijing office, and he is one of those with a two sided business cards, and makes a trip out to Beijing about once a month for a week. I’m starting to considering learning Mandarin even though I work in New Jersey and don’t need it. I’m thinking about it for the same reason I took a class in outsourcing; I don’t need it, but it will only make me that much more valuable as an employee down the road to at least have my feet wet in it.

Iron Chef says:

Re: Re: Chinese is the new Spanish

I agree with you. My dad works for a company that has a Beijing office, and he is one of those with a two sided business cards, and makes a trip out to Beijing about once a month for a week. I’m starting to considering learning Mandarin even though I work in New Jersey and don’t need it. I’m thinking about it for the same reason I took a class in outsourcing; I don’t need it, but it will only make me that much more valuable as an employee down the road to at least have my feet wet in it.

I would definitely consider it. There’s a need for this skillset today, and the Education System is typically 5 years behind market needs. In short, it will be about two decades before we have a workforce that can bridge the language barrier…

GJ says:

Re: Re: Chinese is the new Spanish

Jason – not to dis you, but your anecdotal evidence is pretty weak. Sounds like your Dad interacts with Chinese businessmen frequently. I used to work with a gentleman who spent one week a month in Japan; he had dual-sided Japanese/English business cards. Are we to conclude from that, then, that the language to learn is Japanese, not Mandarin?

In any case, the argument isn’t about business cards, but about technical documentation. Any assertion about the prevalence of Mandarin business cards really isn’t relevant. Even if those types of cards didn’t exist, the argument is still valid – there’s a wealth of technical documentation in a language other than English that is difficult to search without learning an entirely new language.

Iron Chef says:

Re: Re:

The biggest market (currently) is the United States. As long as that stays true, we can expect English to be the language of choice for business.

Obvious consumption does have its advantages.

That’s true to a point. With China’s educational focus, and American Companies sinking money into R&D facilities in China, along with the sheer population numbers of China, they are well poised to become the major source of consumption. Consider efforts by BestBuy, WalMart, McDonald’s (Hallmarks of, er, American Consumption) and their efforts in entering this new marketplace.

Another Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Article isn’t discussing English vs Mandarin (Chinese) as the language of choice for business but technology. More and more programming being done there never mind almost all manufacturing. I have bought many electronics where ‘support’ when you run into problems is spotty as documentation in Chinese/Korean/etc and translations poor.

Anonymous of Course says:

I'm not sure

Maybe I’ve made a mistake in my figuring.
If I take the GDP number most recently
released by China of 18.23e12 RMb and
divide it by 7.377 to convert to it dollars,
I see China’s production is 2.47e12 dollars
which about equal to the contribution of the
southeast section of the US to the US
national GDP.

So The dragon is not quite as large as you
might expect from the reports. In fact it
may be part blowfish.

The Chinese Bureau of standards GDP numbers
are highly suspect. For some interesting
articles about how China tweaks its GDP
numbers see

I’ve seen Lester Thurow’s, we can measure
China’s energy consumption so we can know
it’s growth in GDP, argument used to defend
the released GDP numbers. It’s simplistic
to the point of absurdity. At the first
order consider that China’s energy efficiency
isn’t very good by any unbiased estimate.
This causes a compounding effect.

What’s this got to do with learning Mandarin?
Well, if the GDP numbers are cooked the big
tech boom in China may be stunted.

The US companies that rush to build new plants
there to shorten their supply chains could
well be shipping their products elsewhere.

All that said, I don’t underestimate the Chinese.
The last company I worked for closed it’s US
operations and moved everything to China.
I helped build the plant in Guangdong that
was responsible for that… but this is
commodity type electronics. Not bleeding edge
where we still hold a strong lead, speaking
English, for now.

Trevor Fassbinder (profile) says:

We were supposed to learn German too

There was a time about…20 years back? When everyone was clamoring about needing to learn German in the tech/science department. What happened? Hell if I know.

Same thing is going on here. People are just trying to forecast the future, kinda like global warming, and people are never correct on the subject of forecasting the future. What you CAN forecast is there is going to be a shift of the importance of different languages.

And Iron Tech,just because 3 billion (where did you get that number from?) people know a language doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to have to use that language or that it’ll become the “dominant” language. Lots of people learn different languages for different reasons. If you want to go into business, then yeah, you probably want to learn mandarin.

Iron Chef says:

Re: We were supposed to learn German too

The 3B number is a little high, but consider that there are about 200 languages that have a million or more native speakers. Mandarin Chinese is the most common, being spoken by around 874,000,000 people as a native language. English is a distant third with approximately 341,000,000 native speakers.


As we attempt to understand policy like the H1B visa program, we need to understand that a “High Tech Job” can practically include working at CompUSA, BestBuy’s Computer Department, or the like. (Have you ever wondered this?)

The H1B visa program was not meant for this, but people have learned to bend the rules to include places like CompUSA, BestBuy or even MicroCenter while they wait for a new local opening somewhere else.

If you came to the US on the wings of WiPRO et al, when the contract is done, it’s done. We need to put our foot down and say “Thanks. That’s why we paid you so much.”

Internally, as a Country, the H1B Visa Program needs to include capture of these skills, then focus on teaching them.

China is catching up. I highly reccomend “How Chinese Cost Innovation Is Disrupting Global Competition” by Ming Zeng (Author) and Peter J. Williamson. Published by Harvard Business School Press. It was a very enlightining read.

mike dd (profile) says:

Chinese & Spanish

I was having a discussion recently with someone about the best language to learn.

I was for Chinese (probably Mandarin). China’s market’s are opening and the nation as a whole will become a huge consumer. English is expected in many circumstances such as international government, aviation, high level business. However, all Chinese people do not speak english. Why would you want to cut your self off from that market.

But, it would all depend on your goals in life. Going into medical? Latin may help? Latin American business? Western Europe business? It all depends.

Currently, my 6 year old is starting to learn Spanish. Living in Southern California, it is much more relevant to him.

Anonymous Coward says:

Of course, China’s progress and consumption could change due to the fact that they are killing themselves. Forget about the lead paint that recalled products in America have faced, that is nothing compared to what they are doing to their own people and land.

Their two largest rivers are said to be in such bad shape that they will be unable to sustain life by 2010. Their rice growers know that their rice paddies are growing cancer causing food, but their only option is to starve today.

Hard to say which way China will go, but don’t be surprised if that big ass Red Army will be on the move in the future, this time fighting for water.

methylamine says:

Been there, done that, got the Japanese T-Shirt...

Rewind 20 years and search-and-replace “Chinese” with “Japanese”.

We had precisely the same fear twenty years ago; it seemed the Japanese could make no misstep, and we’d soon be typing on Kanji keyboards. Didn’t happen.

Oh–Angry Dude–dunno which part of IT you’re in, but as a software engineer and architect I can heartily recommend the field. Some drudge-work has been outsourced, but America has a highly lucrative and rewarding market for highly skilled developers. I consistently gross more today than when I was a psychiatrist.

angry dude says:

Re: Been there, done that, got the Japanese T-Shir

“Oh–Angry Dude–dunno which part of IT you’re in, but as a software engineer and architect I can heartily recommend the field. Some drudge-work has been outsourced, but America has a highly lucrative and rewarding market for highly skilled developers. I consistently gross more today than when I was a psychiatrist.”

Poor soul
You went from medicine to IT ? How old are you ? 35 ?
WTF is wrong with you ?
Many folks in IT sleep and dream of some other career, the best being Legal or Medicine (not my bag though)
Go back to psychiatry ASAP
It doesn;t matter how much you make today (it’s under six figures anyway unless you work in NYC or really work your ass…)
What really matters is when you turn say 50 and compete with 25-30+ folks in some new bussword technology of the day like .Bill or C$ or Oracle 110i
Poor guy, just go to and read some stories
You think it won’t happen to you, don;t you ?
Well, it will …

IT is not a lifetime career, it’s just a job…

Ferin says:

Grain of salt

To start with, I still tend to be fairly skeptical towards the tests ranking nations in how their students perform. The U.S. is still one of the few nations that sends realtively average students to compete in these tests. Many countries, such as China, have shcool devoted to solely teaching select children to score well on them.

Also, as many posters have pointed out, we’ve seen this sky is falling mentality before, and so far, english seems to have worked itself out as a fairly dominant language.

The biggest driver I would think would be economic, but you’ve mentioned before the hijinx China’s government has palyed with their economy, not to mention the statistics they give the world being highly suspect. China is a powerful and growing nation. Lord knows if we end up with another four to eight years of bush like policies they could certainly overtake us, but I don’t think we’re in significant danger right now.

Oh and a big ROFLMAO to Jason for your response to angry dude. My cube neighbors were wonderign what was wrong with me.

Shun says:

What's really going to happen?

OK, let’s all assume the worst case and China surpasses the U.S. and becomes the world’s new military, tech, science, (anime), and cultural leader. So, what does that mean for the U.S.? Well, most of us won’t notice the difference. Most goods will still come from China, and the U.S. will be shipping raw materials off to China. Same as it ever was, except U.S. people probably won’t be able to afford all the bright shiny toys coming out of China, and we’ll swap lifestyles (U.S. will get cholera and dysentery, and China will get diabetes and cancer).

How will the U.S. ever compete? We’ll beat China at their own game: piracy. Think about it. The U.S. is already full of nasty software pirates. We’ll just repeal all the laws outlawing piracy, import one each of every high-tech good, then make copies like crazy in our illegal underground copy-machine-type factories. It’ll be like the 1770’s without the feces in the streets (well, maybe we’ll have that, as well). And of course, cheap U.S. pirated goods will need English documentation. Europeans will probably want to buy from us, since English is easier to translate into French and German, as opposed to Simplified Chinese fonts. Even if the EU doesn’t buy anything from us, we could set up call centers to offer support for the “real deal”. We’d have to compete with India, but who knows, by then India might be a first rate power. Yeah! More cheap jobs for U.S. citizens.

Sure, we’ll all live life a little lower on the food chain, but who’s going to notice? Come on, would you rather be dominated by a merciless foreign (occupying) multinational Communist oligarchy or the Republicans?

angry dude says:

Re: What's really going to happen?

you should know that at this very moment the honorable folks of US Congress are pretty much legalizing high-tecgh piracy in US by “fixing” US Patent system

BTW, it is Democrats , not Republicans who passed this patent “reform” crap throuygh the House of Reps back in September…
Just wait a little longer
It’s coming…
China and India are already celebrating…

Joe Smith says:


When I was studying physics (thirty years ago) they were telling us we needed to learn Russian.

It seems to me that the best strategy for an English speaker to be able to communicate well generally with non-native English speakers from around the world is to make sure you speak clear English with a neutral accent, avoiding idiom, jargon and obscure vocabulary.

Navin says:

Idiots running rampant.

While Chinese is an important language and it is entirely probable that the west will lose some advantage by not knowing Chinese. But your 3 billion number is absolutely bogus; where I come from we call it Horse manure.

Worlds largest English speaking country is India followed by US, UK, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Bangladesh etc etc. If you add up, there are substantially higer english speaking population in the world today. English indeed is the true lingua franca – the language with cache.

The beauty of colonialism is immense.

Super Duper Happy Duuude says:

One Happy Meal Please

The US is still light years ahead in terms capital markets, contract law, and equal opportunities. Despite all the hype about Chinese capitalism, the fact is that their current ecomomic boon is due to the reality that they have a huge population of dirt poor people willing to work for borderline slave wages. Americans will adapt and exploit emerging markets wherever they are, just look at WalMart, Costco as examples.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: One Happy Meal Please

The US is still light years ahead in terms capital markets, contract law, and equal opportunities.

Indeed. No one is denying that. Certainly not in the post by Tom. That post was talking about *technology* and how there’s a great deal of documentation in Chinese, suggesting that it may be an early indicator of where things are going.

He also points out why it may not be.

angry dude says:

Re: Re: One Happy Meal Please

“documentation in Chinese”

Good joke… HA-HA-HA

Have you ever tried to enter some Chinese on your comp, Mikey ?
Gosh, you are totally clueless, dude…
Chinese “text” input is a major inconvinience on standard English QWERTY keyboard
This is in addition to the fact that Chinese. sorry mandatrin is a tonal language completely alien to white folks
Same spoken word e.g. “MA” can have at least 4 meanings: like “mom”, “dog” and whoever knows what, depending on your intonation: like MA/ or MA or MA-

Max Powers (user link) says:

True, students should learn Chinese

Jim Rogers, co-founder of Quantum Fund just came out with a new book called “A Bull in China.” This guy is smart and his advice is that you should teach your kids Chinese, “It is going to be the most important language of their lifetimes.”

He has studied China for over 23 years and made a fortune through foreign investing in publicly traded companies and commodities.

Poomer says:

What about translation services?

I disagree with the article. I do see the value in learning a new language; however, learning it due to the reasons provided in the article is a load of B.S.

Besides, technology is improving as better language translation tools are developed, so when the “Tables are turned” the technology will allow us to translate each other and still communicate in different languages…

Tim of Angle (user link) says:

*Speak* Chinese? Why?

I should think that being able to read and write Chinese ought to be sufficient. And, since “Chinese” ideograms have no inherent relation to the spoken syllables (the various “Chinese” dialects are, after all, mutually unintelligible), it ought to be possible to learn to read and write “Chinese” without bothering with the spoken language at all. (After all, one need not speak “European” in order to read and write mathematics.)

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