'A Foreigner Speaking Chinese—That's Scary!'

Finale on the Zuckerberg-in-China saga

Here's how it can look when children in Shanghai learn English in public elementary school. A young American named Kyle Taylor was their teacher a few years ago. (James Fallows)
Two days I described the disagreement on whether it was brave or crazy for Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, to do a public session in Chinese, and the larger issues of language-learning the controversy brought up. Yesterday Isaac Stone Fish, author of an item for Foreign Policy saying that Zuckerberg hadn't done very well, explained why he had made that case and answered criticism from another student-of-China named Kevin Slaten.
A slew of mail from people who have worked the frontiers of language has arrived, and to wrap up this mini-series you'll find an assortment below. [Update: I've just received a very interesting note on the business, as opposed to linguistic, ramifications of Zuckerberg's talk, which if I can work out some details I'll put up as a post-finale bonus later today.]
1) "The audience really couldn't tell what he was saying." Thomas Rippel, an Austrian who is fluent in English and who has lived and worked in China, writes to defend Isaac Stone Fish:

While the title of Isaac Stone Fish's article is ill chosen, I agree with most of it. Zuckerberg's Chinese sounded awful.

It was not just the tones he just completely ignored. He pronounced the "i" in shi as "e". That kind of elementary pronunciation mistake (shi is the most common word in the Chinese language [JF: and is pronounced more like shhh]) makes it clear that he spent 95+% of his time learning from books and not speaking and listening.

The fact that his wife is Chinese is critical here [JF note — see below on the tricky question of whether Priscilla Chan, Zuckerberg's wife, "is Chinese."] It makes you wonder why he put all this effort into learning such a difficult language at all if he ignored to put any effort into speaking it in a way that anyone can understand.

I could tell that for the most part the audience could not understand what he said.

I wouldn't say its embarrassing (and neither did Stone Fish). I applaud Zuckerberg for trying and even did so by sharing his interview wish friends on Facebook without any cynical remarks. But Stone Fish was asked by non-Chinese speakers how good his Chinese was. And his answer was honest and accurate.

Kevin Slaten's article on the other hand is just a contradiction in itself. He is the one who calls Stone Fish a bully, a personal attack. Its easy to call someone a bully, or a racist or bigot for that matter, and just end any meaningful discussion without going into the issue being discussed. It is but a benign example of how people like Slaten continually enforce a kind of self censorship in the press that stifles honest discussion.

2) "I couldn't understand him, but in a way that's to his credit." This note is from an "ABC," a term much more familiar in China and in Chinese-language conversation than in the U.S.
ABC stands for "American-Born Chinese," that is, a native-born U.S. citizen of Chinese ancestry, like former Cabinet secretaries Gary Locke or Steven Chu, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee, athletes Michelle Kwan or Michael Chang, designer Maya Lin, etc. Or, as is relevant to point out, Priscilla Chan, who was born in Massachusetts but learned Chinese as a child from her family.
ABC is different from meiji huaren, 美籍华人, which is "Chinese-American" and would include people who were born in China (or elsewhere) but have emigrated. It is very different from Zhongguo ren, 中国人, which means a Chinese citizen and is unfortunately the way Zuckerberg referred to his wife in the talk.
Back to our ABC reader:

Just wanted to throw in my two cents as an ABC with a qualified conversational fluency in Mandarin.

From the little that I listened to, I had trouble understanding Zuckerberg for two reasons: first, his general lack of tone (which you explain at length), and second, his vocabulary exceeds my own.

For this latter reason I'm obviously in my own glass house, but I think that's possibly something that his naysayers are glossing over -- the feat of memory required to have as expansive a vocab as Zuckerberg displays -- and for this fact alone he would earn kudos. To do so in a public setting? Even more so.

3) The joy of not knowing how much you don't know. From a Western academic who speaks Chinese:

I have a little empathy for Stone Fish, but it also brings up the fundamental point of language, which wasn’t mentioned and Stone Fish missed....

As [Paul] Grice pointed out, the point of language is communication, and it’s a cooperative activity between the speaker and the listener. Looks like it worked in this case! If you fail to try to talk so others will understand or listen so you will understand what others are saying, it doesn’t work, and that’s clearly what Stone Fish was doing.

Some of this came home to me when my wife spent about 6 months in China with me a while ago and worked on learning the language. She was far behind me at the point and I would cringe when we’d be out somewhere and she’d be talking to friends of mine in Chinese. But then I noticed that she was having a great time, they were having a great time, and I was a pedantic idiot.

I think it’s natural for second language learners to become pedantic idiots at some point in the process of acquisition - that’s probably what causes you to focus on improving your own language skills beyond the point where you can get around and meet your basic needs. But that doesn’t make it right!

Two more quick points about American English speakers learning Mandarin -

1. The sounds of the language actually map onto each other remarkably well. French speakers (for example) have a hard time losing their accent because the vowels or so different. Mandarin speakers can become very fluent-sounding speakers of English and vice-versa because the vowels are quite similar and other problems are relatively minor. We both produce and hear three of the four tones — we just use them differently as you note — so it’s relatively easy to repurpose them.

2. Speaking a second language means you’ll say funny things unintentionally and people will laugh at you. But that is its own gift and I suspect precisely the people who worry about this are the ones who need to get over themselves.

4) This joy extends even to German! Another reader:

Oh, boy, put me 100 percent in Slaten's camp on this.

I was in my younger days at one point very nearly fluent in German, but have had almost no chance to use it in the decades since and have lost the ability I once had to speak freely in German.

A few years ago, I was with a small group on a Lufthansa flight out of Frankfurt otherwise packed with Germans under somewhat odd circumstances, and I yearned to chat with some of the German passengers but felt utterly incompetent to do so.

Sitting in front of me on the plane was another member of my group, a rather sloppy and eccentric character, who felt no such inhibitions and plunged right away into conversation with his German seatmates.  I listened to their exchange with massive envy.

My friend's German was frankly execrable (for instance, I heard him use the female for "my son"), but damn, he was having an actual conversation and making a really nice connection with these German strangers -- who listened hard and not infrequently asked him for clarification, but without a hint of ridicule or scorn, and without a flinch at his grotesque mistakes, and engaged eagerly in conversation with him.  While I sat mute.

I cannot tell you how intensely I envied him his lack of inhibition. What's the point, to communicate or to show off expertise?  Slaten has it absolutely right, and I doubt the primary sentiment of the Chinese people Zuckerberg was speaking to was scorn for his imperfect Chinese.

Of course we should strive to speak another language well, but if we can't or we never happened to get there in our education, the idea that we should therefore just shut up is frankly odious.

Good for Zuckerberg (of whom I am otherwise no fan!).

5) It's all about music. Continuing the German theme:

My wife, a musician with a performance Masters from the Hochschule in Vienna, did very well with tones once I pointed out that what she was really supposed to be doing was singing, not speaking.

6) Bus surfing across China.

I am currently in my third extended visit to China and trying to learn the language. First of all, as you already know, the Chinese are very kind and accepting of those attempting the language.

On my first, trip my plan was to "bus surf" across China from Beijing to Kunming only knowing how to say "hello" and "thank you". It worked for me in Europe, Mexico and down to Guatemala, thru the Philippines but not so well in China. I can, anywhere on earth buy food and get into a hotel but buying a bus/train ticket in China IS difficult. I did it with the kindness of many Chinese strangers who may have spoken as few as 20 words of English because of their own fears of being thought of as stupid.

I then began to listen to people speak. I studied my phrase book and ask questions. Always listening to the tones and the tempo. I figure if I can know 100 words and ten popular phrases (or questions) I can survive here.

I have traveled in 18 other countries and have been in countries that have a tonal language, like Vietnam but theirs has much higher highs than in China. The tones here sound muted but I am figuring them out.

It does take guts to learn a new language and more guts to use it outside of the classroom. I congratulate Mark and now consider him my hero.

By the way, Mark may have money but I have something he doesn't. I am retired and have the luxury of spending 90 day visits in China just sitting in parks, volunteering to teach and riding the city bus all day for one yuan to listen and learn.

7) A secret oath among people who study Chinese.

I have been studying Chinese for 10+ years and am now full time student (of mandarin) at [a major university in China] so have been keenly following the news on Mark....

The point of view that I have come to is that there seems to be a secret oath among those of us who try to study Chinese. We all know that we aren’t fluent, but we present united front to those who don’t know better. My wife is Chinese, and it is very rare for American (who professes to be fluent) to actually talk to her in Mandarin. Its’ like a mutual non-aggression pact, and Stone Fish seems guilty of breaking this.

8) "Using Mandarin in China shows even more respect than it otherwise would." And to wrap things up, another Austrian on the geopolitics of language.

I do appreciate the focus you put on how such negative discussions just promote the view that foreign languages are just too hard to learn (to tremendously simplify it).

Now, I’d still like to jump in and say that something must be wrong with the teaching if “intermediate-level learners of the Chinese language … have not yet mastered the challenging tonality aspect associated with Mandarin Chinese” complain that non-standard English is much less accepted than you seem to think (I started making Youtube videos some time ago, and then stopped and haven’t done nearly as much as I wanted simply because the first comments I ever got were not about the actual content but about the way I sounded and appeared, to the viewer/troll, to be behaving) – but all such thoughts and comments would just promote this superficial view that has been so dominant. [JF note: I didn't say there was no embarrassment penalty for non-native speakers bungling their way through English. I said that the penalty was lower there than for any other language, which I believe is absolutely true.]

As you and Kevin Slaten have begun to point out, there would be deeper issues hiding behind the over-discussed way Zuckerberg sounded.

It isn’t even just the aspect of marketing / PR that a CEO learning and using Mandarin in China provides, there are even deeper issues of how languages and their use are interpreted, on an international relations / hierarchical level, for example.

“English as dominant” is a phrase that would actually show that, if only we thought about it a little more, for the wide use of the language is considered to be a reflection of the standing of the English-speaking countries in the international arena. Thus, using Mandarin in China shows even more respect than it otherwise would - or perhaps, it could be seen as showing a bit of a willingness to submit to another country’s/culture’s higher role (which one could argue to always be an issue with a civilization such as China’s, which has been having a tendency of seeing itself as the pinnacle of civilization, after all).

Power relations come into play… and the opposite also applies, so that English native speakers who speak a foreign language may be seen by their kin as betraying the dominance of their language and making themselves smaller than they are. One would hope not, but such feelings of cultural superiority might play a role in making some criticism all the stronger. (“Why make an ass of yourself – and thus us – when you speak the dominant world language?” may be the subconscious thought.)

Then again, Chinese attitudes towards foreign Mandarin speakers vary, depending on person and situation. Zuckerberg as something of an idol likely got even more of an applause than the average foreigner who’s lauded about his/her “great Chinese” after speaking half a sentence, and it seems to have thrown some of the reporting (which at least felt as if it was saying that he must have done great given how much applause, and oohs and ahhs, he got, whereas other people in other situations might just be told that they are not actually making any sense because they aren’t really saying anything right).

Yet again, getting too good at it can be a challenge to self-understanding of the native speakers. There’s that tendency to see Chinese, both the language and the culture / social psychology, as almost a genetic issue, where any ethnic Chinese is supposed to speak Chinese and understand Chinese behavior by virtue of their “being” (looking) Chinese. And with that comes the anxiety expressed in “天不怕地不怕,只怕老外说中国话”… which apparently came from Kevin Rudd, though. [JF note: This is a joke that former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose command of Mandarin no one disputes, told in a speech. Loosely: "I'm not afraid of much, but a foreigner speaking China, now that's scary!"]...

So, how good was Zuckerberg’s Chinese? Don’t know; don’t care; I’d rather sit down and study more myself. How much it could tell us that there are so many discussions about that superficial issue, though – now that is something I find myself very interested in.