Why Every Maker Should Learn Chinese
Pictured above: MAKE Chinese edition

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.

World Stage Is Set, the Numbers Are In

Why? To begin, we’re not going to be “first” any more.

According to the International Monetary fund folks (IMF), by 2016 China’s economy will be the biggest in the world, surpassing the USA. We’re currently in the #1 spot, China is #2, and Japan just fell to 3rd place last year.

China’s economy is expected to grow from $11.2 trillion (2011) to $19 trillion in 2016, and the U.S. is expected to go from $15.2 trillion (2011) to $18.8 trillion in 2016, which would make China about 18% of the world economy.

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For econo-geeks, depending on how you look at the numbers, you could argue it will be 2016 based on purchasing power parity (comparing how people spend and earn, the actual purchasing power households have) or you could look at an economy measured in U.S. dollars. If you do that, it will take a little longer, but not much, maybe 2020-ish. Per-capita income will take a longer too, but not many world economy experts are arguing “if” it will happen, only “when.” OK, those are boring stats, but I think they matter.

Either way, it’s become clear to me from working in the electronics world in some way for 20+ years, traveling the world in the context of how people “make” things, and when I worked with larger companies and spent a long time in China that it’s a great time to learn (Mandarin) Chinese, and I think it’s never been easier. Previously, I tried and did OK, but lost it later.

Almost a Decade Ago – Use It or Lose It

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Chart: Which languages are the hardest to learn?

A few years ago I was spending a lot of time in Japan and China working with Sony on the “gallery” they planned to build in Shanghai. At the time, Sony could not sell their products in China, so they wanted to create a gallery of their high-end goods as a sort of introduction. I was trying to memorize both Japanese and (Mandarin) Chinese phrases to do my job helping Sony, and I did OK but I really didn’t have a grasp of the language.

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The business-style learning technique at the time was using audio CDs. I would rip them and listen to them on my Sony CLIÉ; 8+ hour flights were perfect for this.

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Pictured above: Me, at Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center in Shanghai, Thanksgiving 2003, with a scale model of the city’s growth.

Within a year I could actually see the city grow enormously, and I was able to meet a lot of people. Many of the people working on the Sony gallery spoke English, and I had access to translators, but it was always better and more enjoyable to talk with others directly. However, once I returned to the USA I didn’t have any daily practice. I was living in Minnesota at the time, and (unlike now) I couldn’t visit a section of town that was in Chinese to either practice speaking or some rudimentary character recognition. For a few months I would try to Skype with a few people who I could practice with but it wasn’t a daily thing so eventually I forgot most of it. I also think memorizing phrases wasn’t that good for the long term, more on that later.

The Present – Daily Exposure, One Source for All

Fast forward almost a decade, and I’m living in NYC and talking, reading, or emailing with someone in China. If you make anything, eventually you’ll find that there isn’t a supply chain that beats what China has; while a lot of people will claim goods are made in China only because of lower costs, that’s not 100% true. The supply chain of components to assembly are almost impossible to find elsewhere. If you look at once-booming industrial cities in the USA, you’ll see a lot of the work, from parts to assembly, happened in big chunks of locations — this is efficient and allows manufacturing to flourish.

For makers, specifically makers who are starting electronics businesses, most/all components are sourced from China. Millions of dollars of components come in, and they’re assembled; sometimes products are “Designed in the USA” but “Made in China”. Look under your Mac or iPhone — this is how it’s done.

In the maker spectrum of companies, SparkFun is one of, if not the biggest, company at the moment. Here are the latest public stats (source: SparkFun’s blog):

In 2010, SparkFun had revenues of about $18.4MM. As of April of 2011… 120 employees, up from 87 a year ago.

It’s safe to say millions of dollars are already being spent from just one company in the maker arena you’re familiar with, add up all the maker businesses generating over $1M and you’ll likely hit tens of millions quickly if not over $100M+.

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I think it’s also becoming important for maker companies to actually visit the places and people they’re doing business with. It might not matter to some businesses or markets, but I think it matters to us, as makers.

Three quick examples: “The Return to Shenzhen – SparkFun, Bunnie Huang’s visits to the Chumby assembly line, and Mitch Altman’s visits to the TV-B-Gone factory. Pictured above is Bunnie on the Chumby assembly line. Be sure to read his entire “Made in China” series.

You’re going to see and hear about more and more open source hardware and maker businesses visiting China, and we’ll likely even see and hear some familiar faces in the maker community spending extended time living/working in China. Makers are smart, nimble, and efficient. Being on-site and on the assembly line is usually how we think; we don’t mind getting our hands dirty and participating in all parts of the process. It’s only going to make sense that more and more of the most prolific makers will consider learning a new language the more time they spend in China.

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Here’s a great post from Evil Mad Scientist about their visit to the electronics markets of Shenzhen.

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.

Many of the people I work with around the world have made an obvious effort to learn English, so I think it’s only fair at this point I try to learn their language too. So far, as I’ve practiced with suppliers, partners, and friends in China they’re extremely happy that I’m making this effort. It’s helped with negotiations and just general good vibes between companies. A lot of companies I know go through middlemen, brokers, and companies that will do a lot for you, and that’s fine but you’re losing margins. And besides, it adds complexity. I want to get as close to the source as possible if I can.

Learning (Mandarin) Chinese 2.0

OK great, you may be convinced at this point that it’s handy to know some language skills to do more in and with China if you’re a maker. About a month ago I said to myself that I wanted a goal of when I’d learn (Mandarin) Chinese, how and what ways I could measure my progress. I wanted to make sure I’d have daily exposure in some way, and I also wanted to make sure I could do something with the little bits of time when I’m on hold on the phone or just waiting. The one thing I was worried about was not having the hours of interrupted time to learn a new language. So I put together a strategy that so far has worked out. In less than 30 days I’ve been able to read/write and understand a lot of (Mandarin) Chinese that has greatly assisted my daily job of co-running a successful open source hardware business, Adafruit Industries. I have a long way to go, but it’s been a lot of fun. I realize this is not going to be a one-size-fits-all for anyone, but I don’t mind sharing what I’m doing and how I’m applying these new skills.

Chinese Language Learning Resources for Makers

The first thing I did, since I live in NYC, was to hit Craigslist for language instruction. There are tons of folks in the NYC who are highly skilled and all very reasonably priced. I currently have an instructor stop by once per week. This gave me the framework of what I needed to study and someone I could ask tons of questions.

Next up: technology. Surely technology better than audio CDs, lots of writing, and flash card exercises has come along since I tried to learn almost 10 years ago. Well, yes and no. Those are all still handy, and I’m using them here and there, but the most valuable tools I’ve found are:

Pleco

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Pleco is free, but you buy packs. I have voices, character recognition, and a couple others, and I think it was under $100 in total. This one is complicated, but worth learning. Making flash cards, looking up items, practicing strokes, it’s all there. And it works on my iPhone/iPad, so I always have it.

Pleco is the ultimate Chinese learning companion – an integrated Chinese dictionary / document reader / flashcard system with fullscreen handwriting input and live camera-based character recognition.

Dictionaries: the built-in one has over 20,000 example sentences with Pinyin, the popular CC-CEDICT is available as a free add-on, and 7 other wonderful dictionaries are available as paid upgrades.

Fullscreen handwriting: use the entire width of your iPhone’s screen to draw characters.

Live Optical Character Recognizer: look up words simply by pointing your device’s camera at them, or by tapping on them in a still image.

Flashcard System: create a card from any dictionary entry with a single button tap, import premade word lists, use advanced memorization techniques like SRS (spaced repetition), and study in a variety of modes including fill-in-the-blanks handwriting and tone drills.

Powerful search: look up words by Chinese characters, Pinyin (spaces and tones optional), or a combination, with support for wildcards and full-text search.

Cross-referencing: tap on any Chinese character / word in any dictionary entry to bring up its definition.

Audio Pronunciation: instantly hear a native-speaker audio recording of each Chinese headword; recordings are available for over 34,000 words.

Stroke Order Diagrams: animations showing you how to draw each character; over 20,000 characters are covered.

Software is sold only through in-app purchases, those purchases can be transferred to other devices that sync to your iTunes account just as with any other iOS software; simply load up the free version on each device, open up the “Add-ons” screen, and tap on the “Restore Purchases” button to activate your purchase on each device.

There might be different or better apps (feel free to post them), but I haven’t found them and all my resources are not as expensive as the big guys (Rosetta, Berlitz, etc).

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Oh! Here’s a quick screenshot of the “live” recognizer viewing the cover of MAKE Chinese edition! And before I forget, here’s a pro tip! Get an iPad/iPhone stylus for writing strokes, otherwise your wrist will hurt from using your finger a lot.


Memrise

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Memrise is flash cards on steroids if you are a visual learner (most are). Try this site out; if you’re addicted to things like Farmville, ditch that and learn a new language. You plant seeds, water plants, grow them, and keep them from wilting. I love the site, the visuals are fantastic and I think they’re the future of learning in general. Nice work.

Memrise is the fastest and most enjoyable way to learn words in any language. We’ve taken the very best science of learning and combined it with engaging, playful design to make word-learning fun, fast and exceedingly effective.


Google Translate/Chrome

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Google’s translation services are handy for cutting and pasting in text, translating, phonetic typing, and “speaking” out loud — all essential to me now (and free).


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One more thing for resources: LIVE exposure! I’m a few blocks from Chinatown in NYC, and this is where I practice character recognition. Once you “unlock” being able to see characters, there’s a new world to explore. All of a sudden I could spot the differences between a Western pharmacy and a Chinese pharmacy from the words alone. Specific characters like “electricity” always jump out at me since I see them all the time. Stopping in for some food in Chinatown is a million times easier since I can make out most types of food with just the characters. I think if I didn’t live in NYC or close to a local Chinese district, it would be harder to do this daily. Pictured above, one of my favorite stops on Canal street, 269 Electronics.

A Simple Data Sheet Example

Here’s a data sheet I’m looking at right now, so I thought I’d toss it in this article as a basic example. Can you spot “electricity”? It’s the little character that looks like a solar panel with a wire coming out. This is a data sheet for a digital-output relative humidity and temperature sensor/module AM2303. Knowing a little about each character can help you know (in general) what to look for.

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Chinese characters are often made up of pictures, and each (can) tell a story. Unlike memorizing an alphabet of letters, you can actually get some clues as to what something means — this has been extremely helpful. This image is likely now burned in your head, and you’ll always see it as electricity — see how easy that was?! It’s pronounced “Diàn” with a 4th tone, so rising to falling; it sounds like “Dee ANN”!

Speaking (well) for me is taking longer since actually listening and knowing the tones of words matters, but the more I listen and speak the easier it’s getting, of course.

The Future Belongs to China — Blade Runner

And last up, a geeky activity I am enjoying is trying to translate the Chinese found in some of my favorite science fiction movies/series. It’s a fun distraction that still keeps my head in the game. Here are a few from Firefly and Blade Runner.

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This one from Blade Runner was something I always wanted to know since I saw the movie. Outside the “Eyeworks” labs, where replicant eyes are made, is some graffiti. While there is some debate about what it says, one person who saw my attempt at translation (lower right box) said it means “The future belong to the Chinese”. That might not be what it means, but between Firefly and Blade Runner, the futurist scenes they’ve painted in my mind make me think it’s within the realm of possibilities.


Wrapping this up, I’m learning at an OK clip. I’m exposed daily, and I think I have a shot of being pretty good in 2 years, realistically, and maybe even fluent by 2016. I think it’s good for my business, for the people I work with, and it just feels right; others make an effort to speak to me in my language, seems fair to return the favor. And before the trolly trolls hit the comments, I’m not a Debbie Downer about America’s prospects — quite the opposite, I think the USA and China will continue to design and make some of the best things in the world, together. As we progress as a species, I don’t think “countries” will matter as much. I’m not talking about 10 years from now, I’m talking 100 years from now. As I meet new people around the world, the more I know that we’re all the same really, and we’re all in this together. I figure I can at least get to know more people better by simply learning their language along this all-too-brief journey.

And here’s the part where (if you’ve read all this) you weigh in: Is this something you’d like to do? Have you learned Chinese? What tips and resources can you share? Post up in the comments!

谢谢 (Xièxiè) Thank you!

Phillip Torrone

Editor at large – Make magazine. Creative director – Adafruit Industries, contributing editor – Popular Science. Previously: Founded – Hack-a-Day, how-to editor – Engadget, Director of product development – Fallon Worldwide, Technology Director – Braincraft.


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