Zuckerberg’s Mandarin

on Feb 23, 2015

Last week, my social feeds blew up with news of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posting a Lunar New Year video greeting. Much like his Mandarin news conference in Shanghai, the U.S. news media delivered massive praise for Zuckerberg’s “fluent Mandarin.” In a lot of cases, news reports noted significant improvement from the press conference to the Lunar New Year video. However, if you dig into the comments on the videos and dive into some language learning blog posts, you will find a great deal of criticism, some of it quite vicious. Given the wide range of opinions, I felt like adding my voice to the chorus.

We Should All Be So Brave

I’m not sure how much I’ve noted it here, but my social anxieties have always restricted my language learning forays. In fact, this past weekend at a Lunar New Year celebration, I had the opportunity to speak Chinese, and I chose to speak only English instead. Even in English, given that situation, I didn’t really know what to say so Chinese would have been infinitely more complicated.

Unlike me, Zuckerberg seems completely willing to put himself out there and accept whatever discomfort or criticism the world sends his way. Consider his audience. If I speak poorly at a Lunar New Year party, a couple of people may know. If Zuckerberg makes a mistake, millions of people will see it.

As language learners, we need to be using our language and learning from our mistakes. In that sense, I think we can all take a page out of Zuckerberg’s playbook.

What Did He Say?

I do not like being critical of anyone’s pronunciation because I know I have my share of pronunciation challenges. That said, Zuckerberg is being praised as fluent and simultaneously criticized as incomprehensible. So which is it? Fluent or Incomprehensible? In my opinion, it is somewhere in the middle.

Toward the end of his Lunar New Year video, Zuckerberg used zài/在 in the middle of a sentence. Instead of a fourth tone, it sounded more like a 3rd tone. This is an issue I struggle with myself. Trying to make 4th tone clear in the midst of a run of other tones is very difficult. In isolation, I can produce the tone just fine, and I’m guessing Zuckerberg could as well. It’s just in a sentence, you have to do a lot of vocal gymnastics that take time and practice.

Another set of tones that didn’t sound quite right to me were xìng fú měi mǎn/幸福美满. If your native tongue is not tonal, I assume you have struggled with second tone like the rest of us, and to further complicate this particular phrase, you have consecutive 3rd tones which requires changing the first 3rd tone to a 2nd. Instead of hearing the tones as 4-2-2-3, it sounded to me like Zuckerberg spoke the tones 4-5-3-2 with 5 being the neutral tone.

I heard tone issues like these throughout Zuckerberg’s videos, but they did not often affect my ability to understand what he was saying.

Beyond tones, there are other pronunciation issues that pop up along with some cadence challenges. They’re things all of us struggle with as we learn Mandarin. We’re just fortunate that far fewer people are watching and waiting for us to make a mistake.

Why Did He Say It?

Why does it matter if he wants Facebook available in China? I simply don’t understand this line of criticism. Is it wrong that one reason I study Chinese is that I would like to promote and continue development of my Chinese-English mobile dictionary? That’s not my sole motivation for learning Chinese, but it is definitely in the top 5. Zuckerberg is at the helm of a publicly traded company. It would be irresponsible for him not to pursue a massive, untapped market.