A couple of weeks ago, Mark Zuckerberg shocked the world by taking part in a 30-minute Q&A session in Mandarin Chinese. And we were all super impressed.
It was obvious, even to a non-Mandarin speaker, that he wasn’t completely fluent, but he managed to keep going for almost the full half hour, and his audience at Tsinghua University in Beijing seemed to enjoy his jokes, and his efforts at speaking their language. And it all sounded pretty good to me.
Which just goes to show how much I know. Not too long after the video appeared online, Isaac Stone Fish, Asia Editor at Foreign Policy Magazine, gave his assessment of the Facebook CEO’s efforts: ‘in a word, terrible’. The headline of the piece was, ‘Mark Zuckerberg speaks Mandarin like a seven-year-old’. Ouch.
Since the article was published, people have been jumping into the debate left, right and centre with their own opinions on how he did. James Fallows, writing for The Atlantic, said that Zuckerberg spoke Mandarin ‘as if he had never heard of the all-important Chinese concept of tones’, whereas Mark Rowswell, a Canadian comic who’s fluent in Mandarin and famous throughout China, took to Twitter with a more balanced view.
To clarify, Mark Zuckerberg's Chinese isn't very good. He's incredibly fluent for a Fortune 500 CEO. Which angle do you choose to take?
— 大山 Dashan (@akaDashan) November 1, 2014
Meanwhile, Kevin Slaten, program coordinator at China Labor Watch, was more concerned about the message being given out by Stone Fish’s article. Mark Zuckerberg, after all, is used to bad press and is hardly likely to be put off by a few negative comments. But Slaten looks at the bigger picture: ‘What is Stone Fish, a “China expert”, telling these students of Chinese when he is tearing down a notable person for speaking non-standard Mandarin? He’s telling them, “you’ll be laughed at”’.
Personally, I don’t know how good Zuckerberg’s Mandarin was. It sounded good to me, and as someone who really struggles with nerves when speaking another language, especially to native speakers, I’m pretty much in awe that he had the confidence to give it a go, particularly since it was a Q&A session, not a prepared presentation. (Not that I think Mark Zuckerberg is particularly short on confidence, but you know what I mean.) Had the audience sat there shaking their heads, looking confused or angry, things might be different, but they clearly appreciated the effort he’d put in, so who am I to judge?
Making mistakes is part of learning a language. Everyone has a funny or embarrassing story about a time they used the wrong word, or – in the case of languages like Mandarin or Thai – got the tone slightly incorrect and ended up saying something completely different than what they intended. There’s no shame in it, and in my experience, people appreciate the effort made. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have to do that interview in Mandarin. He could have done what was expected of him and spoken English. And maybe he messed it up, but I bet everyone in that audience went home with a smile on their face (even if it was more from amusement than anything else).
Isaac Stone Fish has since responded to the criticism of his criticism, stating that his issue was with the media outlets who described Zuckerberg’s Mandarin as fluent, when it wasn’t. Which is fair enough, and maybe some of his comments were taken out of context, but I think the main point stands.
There’s a quote by Abraham Lincoln: ‘Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.’ I don’t agree, at least not in the context of language learning. I say speak out, remove all doubt, have a laugh about it, and then learn from the experience. Otherwise, how will you ever get any better?
So let’s give Mark Zuckerberg – and every other language learner on the planet – a break.
What did you make of the Facebook boss’s Mandarin? Have you ever surprised people by speaking their language?
In June 2010, I began a six-month journey through Asia, and my first day saw me crashing into Chinese culture.
I arrived in the hutongs of Beijing (traditional closely grouped houses) where I was met with the foreign smell of uncovered meats being cooked on narrow streets, the noisy chatting of families sat on the brick steps of their homes and the overpowering forty degree heat and ninety percent humidity. It is needless to say China was a cultural shock but the exact one I was looking for.
My first venture onto Beijing’s streets was with a French roommate and we were in search of a real Chinese meal. As I wandered down the cobbled streets, only now slightly cooling as the sun set behind the skyscrapers of Beijing’s far away business district, we picked a restaurant that seemed to be thronged with locals and came with an almost essential picture menu. Having a weighty twenty hours of basic Mandarin lessons under my belt I was able to get a table for two, order a beer, and some water for the table. I felt newly alive as we sat chatting in the busy restaurant, watching locals devour their various feasts. The smell of the Mongolian lamb I had ordered, a specialty I had been told about before my trip, was enticing and the sight of it was even better. I remembered all I had learned about Chinese table manners and customs; that turning over a fish was bad luck, to always leave food at the end of your meal to avoid offending the generosity of your host and to never leave chopsticks stuck in the food as this symbolises death! After a twelve-hour flight I was ravenously hungry and as the food was laid upon the table I attempted to dive in. It was then I realised that there were only chopsticks on the table… an item I had somehow never really learned how to use… In a feeble attempt I tried to pincer pieces of succulent lamb and flick them toward my mouth. Alas this was in vain, and it was only after fifteen minutes, perhaps three mouthfuls of food and with the sound of my rumbling stomach distracting other diners, that the waitress quietly slid a fork on to my table with a beaming smile. This experience not only demonstrated the kindness shown towards me by the vast majority of locals that I would meet throughout China, but also showed me that as much as you can practise a language and learn about a culture, sometimes you just have to go somewhere to get a true idea of a country and its people. Needless to say the food disappeared in seconds and that Mongolian lamb is still perhaps the best tasting meal I have ever eaten!
If anyone else has had an experience as embarrassing, or has been touched by another culture, feel free to tell us about your experience wherever you have been in the world.