Thomas Friedman: Brains vs. Language

Thomas Friedman speaking yesterday in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun:

Funabashi: Among the emerging Asian countries, India seems to have an advantage in globalization because of its citizens’ high English ability. But there are reports that as many as 350 million people are now studying English in China. In a globalizing world, how does English ability impact on a country’s potential?

Friedman: Knowing English was an early advantage for India in a couple of areas. One is, obviously, call centers, where you had to know English to serve an English-speaking company. But today, the second-largest outsourcing capital in the world is Dalian, China, where thousands of Japanese-speaking Chinese are now running the backrooms and writing the software of major Japanese multinationals and American multinationals formerly based in Tokyo. And, as I’m sure people here are aware, there are Japanese language schools on every other corner in Dalian. Japanese language is now required for two years at many schools in Dalian, and I would hardly say that speaking English in Dalian today is a great advantage. In fact, speaking Japanese would be a huge advantage. That’s the first point I would make.

The second point I would make is that in terms of hard-core business processes, so much of this is about writing code and things of that nature, that I believe at the end of the day business will go to where the brains are and not where the language is. You will meet companies today in the United States who have already skipped over India and gone right to China for basically the next generation of business process engineering.

In working on my book, I interviewed Bill Gates, and he told me that Microsoft opened its third research center in the world in Beijing in 1998. It used to just have a research center in Cambridge, England, nice English-speaking place, and Redmond, Washington. He told me they opened their research center in China by giving IQ tests to 2,000 Chinese around the country, Ph.D.s and engineering students, recommended to them, and out of those 2,000 they basically chose 20 to open the research center in China.

Now, think what it is actually to be one of those 20 out of a country of 1.3 billion people. In fact, they have a saying at the Microsoft Research Center in China: In China, when you’re one in a million, there are 1,300 other people just like you.

Now, what Bill Gates will also tell you is that today the China Research Center is the leading research center in Microsoft. You know what he’ll also tell you, though? He’ll tell you that Microsoft’s best game designers all come from Japan. I bet none of them speak English, or very few. So, I don’t think this is going to be about language. I think the language advantage is going to quickly be arbitraged out. There’ll be more Chinese speakers on the Internet very, very soon.

Related: Why India Will (Probably) Never Catch China, China vs. India: Part I

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