Mark Zuckerberg recently made headlines by speaking Mandarin during a half hour Q&A at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He started with a disclaimer that “my Chinese is terrible” but after an enthusiastic response from the audience he continued, saying that while the language is “difficult,” he “likes challenges.” He spoke for about a half hour, answering questions and cracking jokes. Everyone was very impressed.
Well, almost everyone. Tweets and comments trickled in criticizing his accent, his failure to use proper tones, and the apparently rehearsed nature of many of his phrases. One headline read “Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Mandarin Like a Seven-Year-Old.” The author, Issac Stone Fish, put Zuckerberg’s skills “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.”
Victor Mair at Language Log pegged him at a level “about ¾ of the way through intensive first-year Mandarin,” but still found his efforts impressive. According to Mair, “his tones are indeed a bit wobbly, and his grammar shaky at times, but his pronunciation (vowels and consonants) is generally acceptable, and he has a decent range of vocabulary (actually surprisingly good for someone at his stage of learning the language).”
What is more impressive than Zuckerberg’s command of Mandarin is his relaxed and assured manner. Adults who try to learn foreign languages are most hampered by the problem of self-consciousness, the fear of making mistakes or looking foolish. Not so for Zuckerberg, forging ahead with a smile, on a stage in front of an audience no less. That sort of confident enjoyment in newly acquired language skills goes a long way toward building on those skills. That’s how you really learn a language.
Of course, it helps that he gets such a positive, almost thrilled reaction to everything he says, simply because he’s speaking Chinese. This is not just because he is a billionaire CEO. As Brian Fung points out, “it’s hard to understate how much cultural and political messaging is bound up in a white person speaking Chinese, even bad Chinese … seeing a foreigner deign to speak the national language for a change can yield sheer delight.”
If a Chinese person were to speak in English at a U.S. university at a level on par with Zuckerberg’s Chinese, it would be received with dismay, not delight. But that doesn’t mean the Chinese person didn’t have to work just as hard to get to that level. We should be impressed with Zuckerberg’s Chinese—he put in the effort when he didn’t have to, after all, but we should also remember to be impressed by the many people we meet every day who had to learn English as adults. They’ve likely never had anyone tell them how well they speak it. Take a moment today to spread some language love. Or at least a few likes.