ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Chinese is the New Computer —

I have a standing offer with relatives and buddies with children: I will pay for Mandarin Chinese lessons.

Most schools in the US don’t have any easy way to elect to teach children Mandarin, and so you need to have a tutor, or send the kids to a after-hours school, or otherwise give them lessons utilizing your own resources. Almost nobody seems to think this is needed, so they don’t. And the kids don’t learn.

Chinese is kind of freaky if all you’ve learned is English and another latin-based language, poorly. It’s not overly difficult if you spend some time learning it and have a good teacher. But people are, I guess, kind of turned off by the whole idea, and so they avoid it or dismiss it, like it was not really needed or everyone will eventually make it easier for them to know it later.

This parallels, in fact, how computers were in the early 1980s. Some people jumped in. Kids especially jumped in. Others dismissed them, made fun of them, did a little head-flip and made some lame joke that translated to “I am incapable of seeing worth in them”. And then, later, when those kids who drilled their brains on computers as teenagers could understand and improve on technology, well, those kids met success. Maybe the success was financial or maybe it was happiness or maybe it was even the contentment of actually knowing how the hell the world worked around them. But success did come. The people who could joke and head-flip and used whatever variant term for “you are all fucking nerds and I do not identify with your alien ways”, are now utterly dependent on them. Utterly.

Pick up any item in a store, and chances are, almost inevitably, the word “China” will stare back at you. More and more, people I interact with are going to China as part of their job, to discuss the manufacturing that will happen or to finish and approve designs. These are successful, engaged people who are going places (and have been places, actually). They generally do not speak Chinese that I know of, beyond what a traveller needs to get around.

It is my strongest belief that knowing Chinese enough to conduct a conversation about a process, or manufacturing, or getting information sent properly, will be a vital and worthy asset in the future, just like computer knowledge was. While a lot of people will have derived, two-dozen-word vocabularies that will let them stumble by, knowing the Chinese language enough to conduct conversations will mean both an improved product for companies you work with (any company, as we’re seeing) and improvement for yourself, as you become the point person for interacting with the lifeblood of the product manufacturing.

Meanwhile, the new generation of people will be here to head-flip and make some lame joke about learning Chinese and dismiss it and say that only individuals with severe problems would do so. And meanwhile the kids who drill in on Chinese will succeed. They’ll not only see how that language works but gain perspective on language in general (instead of the parts-switching that focusing on latin-based languages does). They’ll think of the world not as their corner and then a lot of other weird places out there, but as one big place. And they’ll likely be asked to travel to those places. And they will succeed and benefit, financially or personally.

Time will bear me out, but I am still going to pay for those lessons in the meantime.

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  1. Chris Barts says:

    This is just a language geek talking here, but you should make it clear that English is based on (shares the same roots as) German, not Latin. However, the most common second languages in this country (Spanish and French) are based on Latin, so perhaps I merely misunderstood you.

  2. V says:

    Thank you, anonymous, I see you’ve read a book recently! However, upon reading it more closely, you will undoubtedly notice that at whereas about half our words and language structure come from a *germanic* root, the other half is Latin or Greek based. Please as to not have your head explode onto your cherished magazine rack, those will also provide you with lots of examples about which I am talking.

  3. Chris Barts says:

    V: By your logic, English is directly derived from every other language on Earth. Now shut up while the adults are talking.

    It’s true that the Germanic and the Romantic languages are related to each other by older, less obvious bonds. They are, after all, both part of the western branch of the Indo-European language family. On the other hand, learning a Romance language from a Germanic background can still be an enlightening experience, and vice-versa. For one thing, English has a highly analytic word order (the position of words in a sentence determines their role) whereas Romance languages tend towards inflecting words to show their role. In Latin, for example, you can rearrange the words in the sentence “The farmer saw the wolf.” at random and no meaning is lost because each word is modified to show what it does. Therefore, Latin speakers use word order to show emphasis (is the important part that the farmer saw the wolf, or is the important part that the farmer saw the wolf)?

    Here is a page showing the Indo-European family tree with a special emphasis on where English comes from. And here is a page describing how we can reconstruct dead languages based on living descendants.

  4. Herr Doktor Deth Vegetable says:

    Actuall, V is right. Someone far cleverer than I once described English as “The end-result of Norman crossbowmen trying to pick up Saxon barmaids.”

    A fair assessment of such a muddy mix of germanic and romantic language.

  5. qiuyue says:

    Jason nin hao

    wo shi mei guo de, wo shuo yingwen he xue xi zhongwen. Wo tong yi nin, wo men mei guo ren dou ying gai xue xi zhongwen, dan shi mei guo you bu duo lao shi.

    Wo xi huan yong zhong guo de wang he zhong guo de you xi xue xi zhongwen, ni ne? Wo you hen duo zhong guo de pengyou, wo jiao ta men yingwen, ta men gao su wo ru guo wo shuo cuo 🙂

    Wo gao xing ren shi ni. Wo hen xi huan ren shi mei guo ren shui zhi dao zhongwen. Wo xu yao shi jian zhongwen 🙂

    Fa song gei wo email ba. wo men yi qi neng xue xi.

    Dui bu qi, wo dong pinyin, kan bu dong zhongwen zi.


    Hi Jason
    I am an english speaking American studying Chinese. I agree with you, we should all be learning Chinese, but there are few teachers.

    I like to use the Chinese side of the internet and also internet games with chinese farmers for practicing. How do you practice? I have made many chinese friends who learn english from me and tell me when I made mistakes with my chinese.

    I’m glad to meet you and really enjoy meeting other americans who study chinese, like me. I need much practice! hehe 🙂

    Send me an email sometime, maybe we can practice together.

    Sorry, at the moment I understand a fair bit of pinyin but almost no chinese characters, though.