Having written the previous blog post for 5 Americans you didn’t know spoke Chinese, I was fairly aware of his Chinese skills. Mark Zuckerberg is married to his college sweetheart, Priscilla Chan, who also happens to be Chinese American. However, the first lady of Facebook (who keeps a remarkably low profile) is reported to be more comfortable in Cantonese than Mandarin. And as we Mandarin speakers know, Mandarin is about as similar to Cantonese as English is to Spanish.
The first lady of Facebook does have extended family that speaks Mandarin, however, and Zuckerberg cited this as one of the reasons for his Chinese-learning quest. So, how are Zuckerberg’s Mandarin skills? Personally, I found them rather impressive.
His speaking ability is pretty remarkable for someone who has only been studying the language for a few years. He is able to understand and correctly respond to the interviewer’s questions with a certain degree of eloquence.
However (and this is where most of the criticism lies), what Zuckerberg struggles with is pronunciation. As stated in our blog post here, tones are extremely important in Pinyin. Asking your waitress for another plate of dumplings can easily turn into “how much to sleep with you for a night?” with the wrong tonal enunciation. And Zuckerberg's tones are wobbly at best. One particularly harsh article puts Zuckerberg’s skill as “someone who studied two years in college, which means he can communicate like an articulate 7-year old with a mouth full of marbles.”
To be fair, the only way to better correctly tones in Mandarin is with daily practice, with a native speaker. It’s not something listening tapes, textbooks, or Rosetta Stone can help you with. Like singers need vocal coaches, Mandarin learners need Mandarin speakers to help correct their pronunciation. And Zuckerberg has other priorities – running his social media empire, writing one thoughtful thank you note a day, etc.
As a Mandarin speaker myself, I had no trouble understanding Zuckerberg. That's because I could gage the meaning based on the context, even if his tones were muddled. His accent is very evident, but he has a decent grasp on the grammar and his vocabulary is considerably extensive. And being Chinese, I know exactly how intricate and difficult my native tongue is.
Either way, the fact that Zuckerberg is in the capital of China, speaking the mother tongue, sends a strong cultural and political message. (Especially considering Facebook is still banned in China.) He has manifested the ideals of Facebook on himself, portraying the connectivity of a smaller world via social media.
So hats off to you, Mark Zuckerberg. We like what we hear.
(And we’d also love to help you with your Chinese. Just so you know.)
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