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Mark Zuckerberg’s Mandarin speech

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As the newly appointed member of the advisory board for Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management, Mark Zuckerberg was in Beijing last week and attended a Q&A session with Chinese students; a newsworthy event, but not something to get crazy about. However, the internet exploded.

I left out one detail in the first sentence: Mark Zuckerberg attended a Q&A session with Chinese students – all capable of understanding and speaking English – and spoke in Mandarin. This is not just newsworthy, but get-crazy-about worthy.

Watch this video with English subtitles here.

The speech got mixed reviews:

‘It’s hard to describe in English what Zuckerberg’s Mandarin sounded like, but I’d put it roughly at the level of someone who studied for two years in college, which means he can communicate like an articulate 7-year-old with a mouth full of marbles.’ Isaac Stone Fish, Foreign Policy

‘As a Chinese teacher, I found the 30 min Q&A very much like an OPI (oral proficiency interview) test and Mark’s Chinese is somewhere between intermediate high and advanced low level. He can communicate with ease and confidence by understanding and producing narrations and descriptions in all major time frames and deal efficiently with a situation with an unexpected turn of events.

While his Chinese is heavily accented, he charmed the audience with his sense of humor and appropriate language use. What I want to tell my students is that if the CEO of a $200 billion company has time to learn the “Category IV” language, you cannot say you are too busy to practice.’ Chen Gao, lecturer in East Asian studies at New York University (cited by Washington Post)

Mandarin’s grammar is fairly simple, but the pronunciation of the four tones of the language is quite complicated and, above all, there is not an alphabet. The Chinese characters, with their very specific strokes, can represent a syllable, a word, an expression or even a sentence, and they must all be learned by heart! No wonder the Chinese have two writing systems: the traditional, more complicated one, and the Simplified Chinese.

But Zuckerberg didn’t use written language, so let’s return to the verbal aspect. Mandarin is a tonal language; one slip of the tones and all the meaning can be lost. One such slip led him to say that there are only 11 Facebook mobile users instead of one million. He mispronounced many other words and some native Chinese speakers said they had a hard time trying to understand what he was saying. Yet the conversation kept going.

The Chinese know their language is hard to learn. One can spend an entire life learning Mandarin and still not reach perfection. Li Weihong, the director of China’s State Language Commission, declared in September that about a third of China’s population, roughly 400 million people, cannot speak Mandarin, preferring their local dialects. And of the 900 million people who can speak Mandarin, only 10% speak it ‘fluently’, he added.

Zuckerberg’s fluency in Mandarin is comparable to a seven-year-old? Good for him! Back in 2010 when he started to learn this language he had no fluency at all! His 30 minute speech set a great example, from two points of view:

First, he did what rather few – although not solely – American businessmen do: speak the language of the land where they do business, or build relationships for a future business. Think about the situation in reverse: if a successful Chinese businessman were to attend an event in the United States, he would probably be expected to speak English.

Second, he did what many language learners everywhere fear most: get in front of an audience of native speakers of your second language. Every language learner makes mistakes, even after many years of study with even easier to learn languages.

With these two things in mind, one can only admire Facebook’s founder. Mark Zuckerberg’s Mandarin speech is praiseworthy, as it shows his interest in and respect of the Chinese culture. Also, everyone can wait for a second such Q&A session to see his development in Mandarin. I’m sure there will be progress.

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