- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is FP's Asia editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington, D.C. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, the BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
Earlier today, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a video of himself speaking Mandarin in Beijing. Since then, I’ve gotten several emails asking about how Zuckerberg’s Mandarin is. In a word, terrible.
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. Zuckerberg was addressing an audience at Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management, a prestigious business school whose board he recently joined. When he began speaking in Chinese the crowd erupted in cheers:
I watched part of the video with our Chinese intern, and he could not understand most of what Zuckerberg said. It was easier for me to decipher Zuckerberg’s Chinese, because that’s what I sounded like as a second-year student of the language while in college. (My Mandarin now is decent, though rusty; I studied for four years in college and spent roughly six years living in China. It wasn’t until after I finished my second year of Mandarin that I could get a Chinese cab driver to understand me.)
Mandarin grammar is relatively simple; probably the most difficult part is the pronunciation, especially the four tones. When asked about advice for students in the audience who want to start companies, Zuckerberg seemed to intend to say, "I think the best companies are founded not because the founder wants to start a company, but because the founder wants to change the world." Most of what Zuckerberg said was guessable because of the context — even though he mispronounced most of what he said — and the audience applauded supportively.
A Westerner speaking Mandarin in China — at any level — tends to elicit joy from average Chinese, who seem to appreciate the effort and respect they feel learning Mandarin demonstrates. As in the United States, Zuckerberg is a huge star in China, and the audience responded positively to his speech. And to be fair, it was impressive and brave for him to try.
After 23 minutes of a grinding Q&A, the moderator opened up the floor for questions. The first questioner asked how Facebook in its early days developed an edge over its competitors. Zuckerberg looked helpless, and the moderator simplified the question. Zuckerberg paused and asked for help, and the student switched to English.
It’s hard not to see a patronizing note in the Chinese audience’s reaction to Zuckerberg’s Mandarin. To borrow from Samuel Johnson’s quip, he was like a dog walking on its hind legs: It wasn’t done well, but it was a surprise to see it done at all.