Portraits of Mark Zuckerberg by Chinese artist Zhu Jia, at gallery in Singapore last yearReuters

About ten days ago Facebook's founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a video of himself giving a speech and handling a Q&A with students at Tsinghua University in Beijing — and doing it in Chinese. You've probably seen it already, but here it is again just in case.

A few hours later, Isaac Stone Fish of FP posted an item with his answer to the question that most Westerners who've been in China had been asked by their friends. Namely, How did Zuckerberg sound? And his answer was harsh. It began:

I've gotten several emails asking about how Zuckerberg's Mandarin is. In a word, terrible.

The piece was titled "Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Mandarin Like a Seven-Year-Old," and it went on to explain why Stone Fish thought so.

Not everyone agreed.

For instance, Mark Rowswell, a Canadian stand-up comic, language teacher, and media personality who under his Chinese name Dashan ("big mountain") is famous throughout China for his native-sounding skills in Mandarin, offered a message of support:

This is like a Tweet from Peyton Manning about some youth-league player saying, "the kid can throw." Before I had seen that reaction to Stone Fish's item or anything else, I did a Tweet of my own that, like many expressions in that medium, was not as fully thought-out as it could have been:  

The not fully thought-out part was that the "Like a Seven-Year-Old" headline mis-stated the point Stone Fish wanted to make. The main problem with Zuckerberg's Chinese (and later on I'll explain why I dare even say this) is how it sounded — namely, as if he had never heard of the all-important Chinese concept of tones. English speakers know how tones can affect meaning. "You're going where?" with a rising-question tone at the end is a request for information. "You're going where?" with a high-astonished-angry tone at the end is something else.

But tones in English mainly affect the shape and meaning of an entire sentence. In Chinese they signal the meaning of every single word. It's hard for English-speakers to grasp how confusing it must be for Chinese speakers to hear their language rendered without attention to tones, which is essentially what Zuckerberg did, because it's like explaining differences in hue to a color-blind person. But in her classic work on the subject, Dreaming in Chinese, a linguist whom I happen to know gives the example of he and she. In English, there is quite a huge difference between those terms. No native English speaker ever mixes them up. But even native Chinese speakers who are very good in English frequently get them confused, or have to stop to think carefully which one they want. (The book explains why.) We think: How can he versus she possibly be confusing? Chinese speakers think: How can you possibly not remember which tones wǒ men ("we," written 我们) has?

A seven-year-old native speaker of Chinese would get all the tones right. That's what native speakers do, and that is what was wrong with the "like a seven-year-old" headline. The real point was closer to, "He speaks it like some cab driver from [name your bad-accent country] you can barely understand."

All this is to introduce a guest post by an American who has made learning Chinese a larger part of his life effort than Zuckerberg, as CEO of a gigantic and fast-growing company, could do. His name is Kevin Slaten, and I turn the floor over to him. (Isaac Stone Fish knows that I'll be posting this, and I'll link to or quote any reply he might make. I've edited Slaten's note only to reflect the fact that Isaac's last name is two words, Stone Fish.)

FP Editor Insults Zuckerberg Like a Seven-Year-Old

By Kevin Slaten

Last Wednesday, Mark Zuckerberg sat down with faculty and students at the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management to discuss Facebook and technology. To everyone's surprise, not only did Zuckerberg open with “dajia hao!” (“hi, everyone!”), but he proceeded to use Chinese to conduct most of the 30-minute conversation.

A number of observers noted that while his Mandarin was not textbook, Zuckerberg deserves admiration for the hard work he put in to get to that point, and even then, he was relatively relaxed and seemed to enjoy the occasion to converse in his new language.

But the Asia Editor at Foreign Policy, Isaac Stone Fish, took an entirely different—and solidly inane—perspective: “Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Mandarin Like a Seven-Year Old.”

Stone Fish writes, “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.”

This article is the literary—if I can even use such a respectable word—equivalent to a person heckling somebody with a lisp who has the courage to get up in front of a lot of people and make a respectable speech despite knowing fully well his own linguistic challenges. To use a public platform to make fun of this person is at best irrelevant and at worst mean-headed.

Someone could respond to me: this is Mark Zuckerberg, among the most rich and powerful people in the world. Okay, fine. Zuckerberg probably can't hear haters like Fish through his oceans of cash.

But this is not really about Zuckerberg; Stone Fish's negativity is directed at many more people than one.

There were more than 8,000 shares of Stone Fish's article, meaning tens or hundreds of thousands of people have read it. Among these are intermediate-level learners of the Chinese language who, like Zuckerberg, have not yet mastered the challenging tonality aspect associated with Mandarin Chinese.

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”, thereby alienating the people most likely to study and work in and around China in the future. This is not the sort of role modeling and leadership that we should expect from Foreign Policy's Asia Editor.

What's more, as a second-language learner of Chinese himself, for Stone Fish to look down on others for their “imperfect” Chinese is both arrogant and risky. There are highly respected China experts—dare I say much more experienced and influential in the field than Isaac Stone Fish—who have used their nonstandard Mandarin to deliver well-received public speeches. Hell, even  the Mandarin used in speeches by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping (neither of whom were native Mandarin speakers) was notoriously nonstandard.

Those of us who did not grow up speaking Chinese, Mr. Stone Fish, should be especially careful not to throw stones in our glass houses. You might rethink your language confidence if Da Shan—the Chinese name of Mandarin expert Mark Roswell—published an article leading with “Isaac Stone Fish Speaks Chinese Like a Seven-Year-Old”. And before you become defensive, Stone Fish, remember that a seven-year-old Chinese kid could probably speak Mandarin more fluently than the majority of us foreign learners.

What's puzzling about Stone Fish's aimless post is that it comes from Foreign Policy, particularly as it was written by that magazine's lead China-focused editor. In my days as a Junior Fellow in the China Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, I remember when Foreign Policy, owned at the time by the Carnegie Endowment and housed in the floor above my office, was often mentioned among my colleagues and peers for providing valuable insight into global trends.

Foreign Policy says of itself: “Foreign Policy and ForeignPolicy.com provide the best available analysis of pressing global challenges by the world’s leading experts.” So, where exactly does a childish analysis of Mark Zuckerberg's Chinese fit into this?

Based on Foreign Policy's own standards, Stone Fish's article should have looked much different.

It should have discussed how few non-Chinese CEO's have been brave enough to make such a determined effort to speak to Chinese in their own language. It should have looked into Zuckerberg's motivations for joining the board of Tsinghua's business school, such as an attempt to nurture a back channel through which he could pursue future ventures in China, especially as Facebook has been blocked by government censors there.

The article should have looked at how Zuckerberg's performance reflects a number of larger trends. Study of Chinese language and culture is on the rise among younger generations, including Millennials like Zuckerberg (and Stone Fish, and myself). China itself is also on the rise, fixing to become the largest economy in the world and host a massive consumer market; major companies are going to increasingly find ways to differentiate themselves from the competition. A boss who is willing to put himself out there to communicate in Mandarin is a marketing strategy.  

Of course, a full analysis would have taken a lot more time and effort for Isaac Stone Fish than just throwing barbs at Zuckerberg for doing his best to communicate in Chinese.

Speaking of Chinese fluency, Mr. Stone Fish, we didn't catch that link to your own 30-minute Chinese-language speech in front of millions of people around the world. Do us the pleasure of linking it in the comments below. [JF note: Or, since we don't have comments here, it can be part of a follow-up post.]

Kevin Slaten is the program coordinator at China Labor Watch. He holds a Master's degree in Advanced Chinese Language and Culture from The Ohio State University. His opinions are his own. Follow Kevin on Twitter or his blog.

Just two more language points of my own:

1) This whole episode illustrates why Chinese is considered a "harder" language for English-speakers than, say, French or even German. Learning any language involves both memory work (vocabulary, gender, conjugations, etc) and imaginative leaps in phrasing and structure, so that you don't seem just to be creating a sentence in English and then plugging in the foreign words. Beyond those "normal" challenges, Chinese requires wrestling with two elements that just aren't part of the native English-speaker's repertoire: tones in spoken Chinese, and characters in the written language.

If Chinese is your native language, you hear those tones as soon as you hear anything, and you deal with characters starting in school. Foreigners often find one or the other, tones or characters, the real obstacle, although in theory they need to learn both. My wife Deb has an excellent ear for language, and is always being told that she sounds good in whatever language she is speaking. Thus tones — a semi-musical concept — came quickly for her. I have a bad ear and have never been told that I "sound good." But I like the character-based writing system; I find that remembering characters comes relatively easily; and so in China I felt more or less visually literate, although I would struggle to be understood. This is why, as Deb explains in her book, we felt well-prepared as a language team in China — I could read, she could talk — but could be in trouble just on our own.

2) Slaten's note brings up the crucial point of "face" — or pride, vanity, dignity, whatever term you'd want — in learning foreign languages.

Learning any language is a long process of making mistakes and learning from them, even with your first language. It's not embarrassing for little children, because they don't know they should be embarrassed, and because we all realize that they are kids. ("He said 'I goed to school,' isn't that cute!") But by the time you're an adult, you have more to lose by sounding stupid or clumsy in another language. At the very best, you'll have a more limited range of tools with which to shape and shade your meaning. At worst, you'll make people laugh at you.

As English has become the international language, something that was different even a generation ago, the embarrassment penalty for non-native speakers has become lower in English than in any other language. Partly that's because so many people start studying it relatively young. (If you're an ambitious parent in Brazil, Russia, Germany, and China too, you want your children to get good early English training.) Partly it's because there are so many "native" variants of English around the world: the English-English variety; the standard-American English that via TV, movies, and commerce is becoming a standard world wide; Aussie; Indian; South African; Scottish; Caribbean; West African; Canadian; Singaporean; you name it. And partly it's because we're so accustomed to hearing those native-speaker variants and also so many non-native speakers getting their meaning across in their own approximations of English. Go to any international business conference. Get in any big-city cab in the United States.

Acceptance of a range of accents and approaches is more normal in China than in, say, Japan. There are many variants of Chinese inside the country, and there's a charming assumption that foreigners should try to deal with the language (unlike the frequent Japanese assumption that their language is too uniquely Japanese for foreigners to try, plus the counterpart in France). Still: because Chinese is so "hard," and because for adults the consequences of sounding silly or dumb in Chinese are so discouraging, many people don't try.

I never tried in China in any public circumstance remotely like Zuckerberg's, because the only language I'd learned early enough to sound even passable, French, wasn't relevant. With all the other languages I've coped with since then, I've mainly tried to develop: passive understanding, so I could have some sense of what has happening around me; reading understanding, since as with characters that's easier for me; and basic-functional competence, so I could say "I'd like to go here, not there" or "I left my bag on the Number Ten metro, can you help me find it?" or "I would like two tickets to Yinchuan." And since my professional identity and personal sense-of-self are wrapped up with using even one language precisely, I avoid putting myself in public circumstances where I would come across as saying, "Me like China but no like pollution and censorship. They bad."

All of which is why I think Isaac Stone Fish was "fair" in saying that Mark Zuckerberg's Chinese didn't sound very good — but that Dashan, Kevin Slaten, and others are right to say that the effort should be praised and not ridiculed. Fear of ridicule is precisely what keeps me and countless others from ever daring what Zuckerberg did, and the existing stock of it is so great that it's a shame to add any more.

Mark Zuckerberg is in a position not to care if anyone laughs at him, but even he must notice. So good for him for taking this risk, and thanks to both Isaac Stone Fish and Kevin Slaten for prompting a discussion of larger matters of language.

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