Should we be learning the Chinese Language?

For young designers like myself all this talk about China and India is scary, should I be learning their langauge…?

Or more to the point:

Mandarin -or- Cantonese?

China Daily: “Although English is largely considered the most practical language for business and commerce, Chinese remains the most widely used language in the world - spoken by one-fifth of the world’s population.”

I’ve been traveling to China for the last 20 years for business, but have only picked up a handful of words because I was always surrounded by English speaking interpreters. It’s a shame, because I would be much more effective if I could understand ALL of the negotiations. Not learning to speak Chinese will probably be one of my big regrets in life.

I’m recommending to my daughter that she take Chinese classes. I took the family to HK a couple years ago so they could understand the culture better. It was a great trip and a good learning experience.

PS: The Chinese government is pushing Mandarin for the future. Cantonese will probably die in the next few generations.

Shift Happens
by Karl Fisch

Did you know?

Sometimes size does matter.
If you’re one in a million in China…
there are 1,300 people just like you.
In India, there are 1,100 people just like you.
The 25% of the population in China with the highest IQs…
is greater than the total population of North America.
In India, it’s the top 28%.

Translation for teachers:
they have more honors kids
than we have kids.

Did you know?

China will soon become
the number one English-
speaking country in the world.

If you took every
single job in the U.S.
today and shipped it
to China…
it still would have
a labor surplus.

During the course of
this presentation…

60 babies will be born in the U.S.
244 babies will be born in China.
351 babies will be born in India.
The U.S. Department of
Labor estimates that
today’s learner will have
10 to 14 jobs…

by age 38.

According to the U.S.
Department of Labor…

1 out of 4 workers today
is working for a company
for whom they have been
employed less than 1 year.

More than 1 out of 2
are working for a
company for whom
they have worked
less than 5 years.

According to former
Secretary of Education
Richard Riley…

the top 10 jobs that
will be in demand in 2010 didn’t
exist in 2004.

We are currently
preparing students
for jobs that
don’t yet exist…

using technologies
that haven’t yet
been invented…

in order to solve
problems we don’t
even know are
problems yet.

Name this country…

Richest in the world
Largest military
Center of world business and finance
Strongest education system
World center of innovation and invention
Currency the world standard of value
Highest standard of living

in 1900.

Did you know?

The U.S. is 20th
in the world in
broadband Internet
(Luxembour just
passed us).

Nintendo invested more
than $140 million in
research and development
in 2002 alone.

The U.S. federal geovernment
spent less than half as
much on research and
innovation in education.

1 of every 8 couples
married in the U.S. last
year met online.

There are over 106 million
registered users of MySpace
(as of September 2006).

If MySpace were a country,
it would be the 11th-largest
in the world (between
Japan and Mexico).

The average MySpace
page is visited
30 times a day.

Did you know?

We are living in
exponential times.

There are over 2.7 billion
searches performed on
Google each month.

To whom were these
questions addressed B.G.
(before Google)?

The number of text
messages sent and
received every day
exceeds the population
of the planet.

There are about
540,000 words in the
English language…

about 5 times as
many as during
Shakespeare’s time.

More than 3,000
new books are published…


It is estimated that
a week’s worth of
New York Times…

contains more information
than a person was likely
to come across in a
lifetime in the 18th century.

It is estimated that
1.5 exabytes (1.5 x 1018)
of unique new information
will be generated
worldwide this year.

That’s estimated to be
more than in the
previous 5,000 years.

The amount of new
technical information is
doubling every 2 years.

For students starting a
four-year technical or
college degree, this
means that…

half of what they learn
in their first year of study
will be outdated by their
third year of study.

It is predicted to
double every 72 hours
by 2010.

Third-generation fiber optics
has recently been tested by
both NEC and Alcatel…

that pushes 10 trillion
bits per second down
one strand of fiber.

That’s 1,900 CDs, or 150
million simultaneous phone
calls, every second.

It’s currently tripling about
every 6 months and is
expected to do so for
at least the next 20 years.

The fiber is already there.
THey’re just improving the
switches on the ends, which
means the marginal cost of
these improvements is
effectively $0.

Predictions are that
e-paper will be cheaper
than real paper.

47 million laptops
were shipped worldwide
last year.

The $100 laptop project
is expecting to ship between
50 to 100 million laptops
a year to children in
underdeveloped countries.

Predictions are that
by 2013 a supercomputer
will be built that exceeds
the computational capability
of the human brain.

By 2023, when 1st-graders
will be just 23 years old
and beginning their
(first) careers…

it only will take a
$1,000 computer to
exceed the capabilities
of the human brain.

And while technical
predictions farther out
than about 15 years
are hard to make…

predictions are that
by 2049 a $1,000
computer will exceed
the computational
capabilities of the
human race.

What does it
all mean?

Shift happens.

If anyone is interested, I can teach!.. for a fee :stuck_out_tongue:

Recently I was being contacted by this mother looking for Mandarin “companions” for her 2.5 yr old daughter. She said her daughter has been learning the language and enjoys it. To me it really sounds scary. I grew up in a dual language environment but I had my mother tongue foundation built first. I cannot imaging the confusion that will arise from learning multiple languages from a young age. To me that’s not a good thing to do.

China will soon become
the number one English-
speaking country in the world.

Now I’m glad I didn’t waste any time learning Chinese…

No more regrets in life.

I am currently learning Cantonese, bit by bit, just to survive in Hong Kong but I agree that it is a language that will be replaced by Mandarin.

As I have mentioned before at this forum, the thing you really need to study is how the Eastern and Western minds think differently (and they do in major ways). Fundamentally we see the world and how it operates in a very different way and this is the reason that we have such difficulty communicating.

If you really want to learn then get “The Geography of Thought”, by Richard Nisbett. It is like the 'Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" for East-West relations.

The book can be found at:

I grew up in Singapore learning both english and chinese at the same time. I don’t really find it all that confusing, instead I think that my understanding of 2 so very different languages made it that much easier for my to pick up japanese, which is sort of a weld of both an english phonetics alphabet and a chinese hieroglyphics system.

I’ve read before of a scientific report mentioning that those who grew up learning chinese as their main language, because their brain is wired to recognise words as both sound and meaning (as compared to just sounds in english), are able to think more analytically. Their brain develops in a different pattern from those who grew up with a phonetic language. I don’t know how true it is, but it was rather interesting.

My mother tongue is Chinese. I was exposed to English starting from 8 yrs old. My observation on those who grew up in a dual language educational system is, either that they master one or them, or they aren’t good at either.

The breadth of thinking is often influenced by the variety of experience the person has had. The depth, is often limited by how much command the person has of his most dominantly used language. Of course, this is a controvasial opinion, but it’s what I have observed.

Of course there is more to Singapore’s education system to discuss about other than the multi-language nature, but you can’t deny that mixture of grammar and accent of english, mandarin, malay, hindi and the various chinese dialects has been a major issue. It’s ironic that some of them even think that Americans have strong accents.

For me, I used to hover abut the border between pass and fail during English examinations no matter how hard I tried. When I came to the US, I aced in all the English classes. It’s not that the standard of taught English language is lower here, but the change in environment allowed me to understand the logic of how the language actually works, so it was much easier from then on.

Actually the current generation of kids have a problem with mandarin, they find it too difficult. My generation is generally fine with either language, though we are definitely stronger with english, especially when speaking business. English terms pop up in the middle of all chinese conversations all the time. Almost sounds japanese.

But you are right, fluency is largely dependant on their environments.

So what I hear is…Mandarin if you want to do business…

Unless The US starts acquiring more land…we will never catch up to China or India…

We have truly arrived to the digital age…

I will have to keep learning something new everyday if I want to stay at least par with the world as an educated designer…

It doesn’t matter what language you speak…as long as you can speak at least four different ones…

Thank you this has been most interesting…

I am asking myself the same question. The thing is that China in the future (and probably already) plays 2 roles in teh contemporary industry and market.

a. almost everything is built there.
b. it’s one of the biggest (and maybe it will become the biggest) market.

so, in one way or another almost any industry is dependent from China and therefore i would think that if a designer (not Chinese) could speak Chinese in the future (the very near one) will have a competitive advantage.

about a year ago i was in Hong Kong (in HK people do speak english so no major problem) + China and last January i was in Japan. i really loved Japan and i would really consider to move there and work at least for some years. An interesting difference i found was thet wesetrns in HK were were NOT speaking Cantonese or Mandarin but it were the locals who had to speak english. In contrast, in Japan it were the wesetrns who would speak Japanese. If you want to survive in Japan you HAVE to speak Japanese…so… how about learning both Chinese and Japanese :laughing: :open_mouth:


Because of your point “b”, be careful of how much longer point “a” will continue to be true. Very soon there will be a great inward turning of Chinese manufacturing to the Chinese markets. I hope other countries have a plan for this, and the idea that you can just move to another country and find another “China” will not work either. At least not in low cost Walmart/Carrefour market system.

You are not required to speak Chinese when dealing with Chinese manufacturers because it’s them who are trying to sell you stuffs. When you are trying to sell them your designs, that will be the time when you need to speak their language.

Language is the main key to understanding a culture. To learn a language, you cannot do it by textbook or remotely. You have to find ways to understand the culture or else the language will never make sense to you. Therefore, in order to design for the “largest market in the world”, you gotta learn the language.

ive been travelling to China quite frequently over the last 6 years (about 100 days per year- footwear industry), but sadly havent had the opportunity to lear to much Chinese (Mandarin). I can count to twenty, know some colors, usual “hello, goodbye, thank you, tec.” a few technical words and lots of drinking games, but not much more.

when i first started travelling with my boss who had been going to china for more than 20 years I was suprised that hi didnt know much beyond “hello/thank you”. but now i see how much more difficult it is to learn of you are dealing in business with people that can speak english very well and need to efficiently communicate (ie. can spend 10 minutes flipping through a dictionary or trying to learn in the midset of getting stuff done).

still, if you have the opportunity, i would say it could be a big plus.

I used to work with a tech guy from india who could speak pretty fluenty about all things technical, daily use (food, directions, etc.) and get by in all ways. I dunno how he did it (spending more than 200 days in China/year probably helped a lot), but more than anything saw the respect he commanded when working with suppliers.

As for young children learning multiple languages, I think its been shown in studies that the young mind can much easier process the requirements to learn different sounds and grammar structures much easier than adults. If there’s anyway I could teach my kid Mandarin (when i have a kid) i would.

Interesting sidenote is the number of languages most europeans speak compared to north americans. Its not unsual for many europeans to know fluently at least 3-4 languages (ie. German, english, french) with a working knowledge of maybe 1-2 more (ie. spanish, scandinavian languages, etc.).

In business it never hurts to be able to speak the language of your business partner/suppllier even just to make them feel more at ease.

Good point though by TimF about the thinking difference in cultures west vs. east. I would also agree that this is as important or more important than langauge esp. as more asian cultures are now learning english, but very little in the way of western culture/business practices.


I’ve heard this issue over at other forums and a lot of people appear to think cantonese is important too… mandarin will be the common language of all Chinese. And yes I think Chinese will be dominant. For now, both English and Chinese are dominant languages.

I come from Shanghai, China and working in a Korea Company now.
For me, languange is just a tool of communication and culture itself. Even we say same language, we also have some misundersatand.
Understanding one culture and repecting it is more improtant I think.

Even in China, it has so many languages different from Mandarin that I cannot understand either, ex Cantonese.^^

I think you’re right here yecc…I think understanding one’s own culture and learning about the cultures around us is crucial…especially if you’ve chosen to be an Industrial Designer…I am of the thinking that products should be designed for specific cultures…who’s going to use this product and what type of culture do they live in?..

Well, No.2, this kind of situation depend on the which kind of product they use and the live condition they have. To read the culture, especially to a new guy or foreigner, observation is the key method.

I think it’s interesting when interviewing a user about a certain object, if they know more than one language they usually use two or three different words for the same object. For example I know both English and Spanish. So to me when I read or say the word “table” I’m also thinking “mesa”. That goes for all things…I usually name my projects by word I use to describe it…so if I design a table I might name the project MESA, Spanish is my first language so I usually care more about an object if the words to describe it come strictly from the Spanish language, sometimes even the dialect.

Does this make sense? Is it unusual to use more than one name for an object?

…For Example in English sometime people will replace the word for the object with the brand name…Instead of saying “my laptop”…they might say “my Dell” …and so on…

What do you gals and guys think?