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.

Touch Culturally Universal?

Figure via Topography of social touching depends on emotional bonds between humans The areas outlined in blue are the "taboo zones," which are regions that person group is not allowed to touch.

Figure via Topography of social touching depends on emotional bonds between humans
The areas outlined in blue are the “taboo zones,” which are regions that person group is not allowed to touch.

A recent study in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) caught my attention. It deals with reactions to being touched by others and examined reactions across a variety of cultures (Finland, France, Italy, Russia, and the United Kingdom). The researchers survey people from those countries using an “Internet-based topographical self-reporting tool”:

Touch is a powerful tool for communicating positive emotions. However, it has remained unknown to what extent social touch would maintain and establish social bonds. We asked a total of 1,368 people from five countries to reveal, using an Internet-based topographical self-reporting tool, those parts of their body that they would allow relatives, friends, and strangers to touch.

The fact that allowable areas of touch are related to group membership is no surprise. We would expect to see significant differences between partners and strangers in that regard. The study also asked about family members and distinguished between male and female subjects (respectively colored blue or red in the chart). Also expected was the study’s results in terms of what body areas are teemed “touchable”, which depended on the nature of the relationship:

Human social touch is particularly dependent on the emotional bond between the parties: The bodily regions where one may touch different individuals in their social network are relationship- specific, with hands and arms being routinely touched by even emotionally distant acquaintances, whereas touching the head, neck, and buttocks is typically restricted to emotionally closer relationships.

One of the findings I found less expected was the fact that cultural differences did not make as much of a difference as did gender:

The sex of the participant and the toucher significantly influenced the TIs [the touchable index]. When considering social network members having the same type of social relationship with the participant (e.g., sister vs. brother), females were allowed to touch wider body areas than males. The sex-related TI differences were significant for all male–female pairs of the social network (P < 0.05, t test). Accordingly, participants also reported stronger emotional bonds with female than male members of their social networks. Moreover, female subjects reported, on average, higher TIs across all members of their social network than males did, with the exception of female acquaintances and female strangers…Female, rather than opposite-sex, touch was, in general, evaluated as more pleasant, and it was consequently allowed on larger bodily areas.

Across the cultures, the most often used reason for touch was in greeting. In terms of cultural differences, some results surprised the researchers: “Somewhat surprisingly to the Finnish and Italian authors of the present study, Finland had larger TIs than Italy.” On the other hand, the culture least comfortable with touch may be easily predicted: the British. Unfortunately, the cultural variety was limited, so the results can hardly be generalized to include cultures from Asia, Africa or Latin American, where there may in fact be significant differences in terms of touch.