Okay, so recently my internet has been going crazy over this interview that Mark Zuckerberg did at Tsinghua University in Beijing, in Chinese. (I say “my internet” because I’m sure that there are people who have not heard about this, but when you know as many Chinese language learners as I do, it’s unavoidable.) Reactions ranged from the clickbait headline “Of Course Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Fluent Mandarin” (courtesy of Mashable, so no surprise) to the much harsher “Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Mandarin Like a Seven-Year-Old”. My feelings are . . . mixed.
When I first watched the video, I’m not gonna lie – I cringed a bit. It’s probably easier for us foreign language learners to understand bad Chinese because we remember the not-so-distant past when we sounded exactly like that (“What, tones are a thing?”), but it’s also more grating because it’s like a reminder of our own imperfections, but glaringly obvious because they’re displayed by a stranger that we are more willing to criticize than ourselves. In fact, the whole interview is like watching someone demonstrate some of the most significant impressions I have of my language learning process:
First of all, it’s almost too much to say his tones are bad, because he almost doesn’t seem to be trying to do tones. (Oh man, do I remember this stage of my Chinese!) His pronunciation (clearly has not figured out the ü sound, or the difference between “q” and “ch”, etc.) is also pretty painful to listen to – but probably partially because I remember the summer when I lived on the farm and had no idea there was a difference between 去 (qu) and 出 (chu). BUT! He demonstrates, exactly as I remember, that – given an understanding audience – it is perfectly possible to carry on a conversation without tones and with terrible pronunciation. Charity covers a magnitude of sins!
The reaction of the crowd is 100% what I would have expected in such a scenario – going crazy over the smallest sentence that this white guy strings together. If you watch nothing else, watch the first 20 seconds, in which Mark says “Hello, everyone” and nearly gets a standing ovation for it. One of the first things I learned in Chinese was that whatever the other person said after I said my first sentence was inevitably some variation on “your Chinese is so good”/“wow, you speak so well”/“how long have you been learning?”/“incredible!”. I maintain that the enthusiasm and encouragement of Chinese people is the single biggest factor in making Chinese possible – rather, easy! – to learn.
Another thing that was familiar was his sheepish grin when you’re not sure if they’re laughing at what you said or how you said it. Story of my LIFE in China.
One thing that was unfamiliar to me was his vastly superior knowledge of start-up and social media-related terms. In many ways, beginner Chinese is beginner Chinese – but at the same time, there’s a subset of the initial vocabulary that is (and should be!) highly influenced by your reasons for learning the language, by the circumstances of your life. My Dutch friends knew how to talk about the European Union and dikes; my Israeli friend who is now a taiji teacher in Jerusalem knows a wealth of martial arts terms. I started out with a strong construction- and sustainable-energy-related vocabulary, which later expanded to include a good dose of Catholic theology, just because that’s what I needed.
So, speaking from a place of compassion, realizing that my days of terrible Chinese are not as far in the past as I would like, and that my decent Chinese is not as good as I would like, I don’t share the sentiments behind either headline. My problem with the first headline, calling him fluent, is that such a headline sets up people like me (who know something about Chinese) up for disappointment, when the interview actually is impressive on some level. If it had been billeted as “Mark Zuckerberg conducts an interview in Chinese”, my expectations and reality would have been much more aligned and I would have been more impressed than disappointed. The second headline rubs me the wrong way because, in my years of studying and using Chinese, I have recieved nothing but encouragement from Chinese speakers, and I ackowledge that it has been crucial to my continued study.
As foreign speakers of Chinese, many Westerners seem to think that what we’re doing is basically impossible and we’re freaks of nature. The truth is, there are not enough people who visibly speak imperfect Chinese. There are millions of us who do this on a regular basis in our everday lives, but a famous person conducting an extensive interview and recording it for the internet? To me, this showed two things: Chinese is not impossible to learn, and (because?) “fluency” is not necessary in order to communicate. These are the two things that I try to impress upon people who ask me about learning Chinese (or, more often, try to convince me that it is impossible and anything less than fluency will result in me regularly insulting people’s mothers).
Mark also comments on his listening comprehension, saying that his wife Priscilla (a Chinese-American) has better listening comprehension than him. But I think this is almost a universal sentiment among Chinese language learners. I personally remember learning the word for “why?” very early on, and promptly filing it away for some time in the very distant future; I could ask the questions I wanted to ask, but the chance of me understanding anything of the answer was essentially nil. So I totally sympathized with him when someone in the audience asked a question and he clearly had no clue what she had asked. I could see the simultaneous relief and “you’ve got to be kidding me” in his eyes when she tried again in English:
“How did facebook establish the competitive edge towards other early social network sites, and what’s the biggest challenge? And the second question is, at what moment did you get a leap of faith and decided to leave the school and devote [something I couldn’t understand even in English]?”
Oh man. The limits of your Chinese are established at moments like this – not when answering softball questions like “What’s your favorite Chinese food?” and “Why did you want to learn Chinese?” But I guess it seems to me, this question came after 21 minutes of conversation in Chinese (broken only by some English pause words), and that is an achievement in his own right. Fluent? Hell no. (Like anyone knows what that means, anyway!) The most prominent exhibition I’ve ever seen of the principles of “speak the damn language” and “Chinese is not impossible”? For sure.
One last comment: I laughed out loud when I read an International Business Times article about the interview (Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Chinese ‘Like a 7-Year-Old With a Mouth Full of Marbles’). After criticizing his Chinese, and attributing all the positive comments to English speakers, they say that Mandarin speakers have been less complimentary – namely, this one guy:
厉害 means something like powerful, intense, strong. You can use it to describe a terrible stomach-ache (我的肚子疼得很厉害), for instance . . . but the hilarious thing here is that it’s usually used to mean “awesome” or “impressive”. So . . . the people criticizing Mark Zuckerberg’s Chinese rely on Bing’s translation to make a mistake a first year student would make? Now that’s embarrassing.