Mark Zuckerberg’s Mandarin


Mark Zuckerberg speaking Mandarin at Tsinghua University

The Facebook CEO recently gave a talk at a Beijing university (Tsinghua) in Mandarin Chinese. This follows a public question and answer session in Mandarin with Zuckerberg conducted last year in Beijing. The reaction to his talk has been mixed, with many praising his courage to give a 20 minute speech in Chinese, given that he has not studied the language that long. James Fallows had some interesting comments in the Atlantic. There has been an interesting discussion on the languagelog blog. Victor Mair commented:

He’s intelligent, he’s confident, he has a nimble tongue, possesses strong communicative skills, and is blessed with all the other attributes that make him potentially an excellent speaker of Mandarin. But Zuckerberg has gotten off on the wrong foot with his Mandarin learning. I don’t know what methods he is using, but they clearly are not the right ones.

Mair says the grammar and vocabulary were fine, but the tones were way off. Using the right (of the four) tones right is essential to understanding what a specific phoneme means, as the same short syllable can have 4 or more different meanings, depending on the tone. It’s a similar issue for non-native speakers of English who do not use standard intonation and stress patterns, but can be even more problematic in tonal languages (which include Thai, Vietnamese, other Asian languages and some African languages). Still, Mair says he was able to understand almost everything in the speech, although other linguists who asked native speakers to listen, indicated that for them there were some parts of the speech which were difficult to decipher.

One commenter on languagelog pointed out that how problematic getting tones wrong is in terms of comprehensibility depends on the context:

There is a pretty low upper limit to how complex your vocabulary can get with bad tones. When you are using very common words and constructions, people can infer most of what you mean even if it isn’t clear. But once you are trying to quote weird technology terms from a newspaper or use words that native speakers might themselves have only heard a handful of times, poor tones will make you completely incomprehensible.

In my experience, if you provide enough context (i.e. speak not too slowly and say more than a few words) and have some tones wrong, you are likely to be understood. Despite pronunciation problems, many on languagelog and elsewhere praised Zuckerberg’s willingness and courage to give a public speech in Chinese. Native Chinese are appreciative (and surprised) when non-Chinese (especially Americans) make the effort to speak their language. In fact, the Washington Post last year, after Zuckerberg’s first public use of Chinese, ran an article entitled “A brief history of white dudes wowing people with Mandarin.” It certainly does not harm the cause of promoting Chinese language learning in this country to have the CEO of Facebook make the effort to learn and use the language. And that in a country in which Facebook is banned.

One thought on “Mark Zuckerberg’s Mandarin

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