Facebook Founder Learns Mandarin
Two weeks ago, Mark Zuckerberg spoke with students at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Apparently he has been learning Mandarin Chinese, because he surprised everybody by speaking in Mandarin.
So, how did he do? From my own limited, but immersive, experience working and spending time in a very Mandarin speaking oriented part of the Lower Mainland, I can tell that his tones or what we could consider accent, is probably not the best.
An article from The Atlantic posted on Saturday asked the same question. You can find the article here.
The response was mixed – Issac Stone Fish in an article at the Financial Post critiqued that Zuckerberg sounds like a “7-year old with a mouth full of marbles and that he was like a dog walking on its hind legs: It wasn’t done well, but it was a surprise to see it done at all.”
I think that people are interested in knocking Mark Zuckerberg because in other facets of his life he is a certifiable genius. He is also incredibly wealthy. But learning Chinese is an exercise in equality. No matter how smart or successful you are – it’s still going to be difficult.
The interesting part of this conversation in the Atlantic article was the response by a guest writer Kevin Slaten, a programmer at Chinese-Labour Watch, echoing my thoughts (and probably the thoughts of anyone that has taught a language, or tried to learn a language): Zuckerberg had the courage to try, and seemed like he was enjoying himself. By mocking Zuckerberg you alienate those that are most likely to try learning Mandarin. For those would-be learners – if you’ll be laughed at, why try?
Again, Mandarin is a very difficult language to learn for speakers of English. It’s not the grammar, it’s the pronunciation.
Why is Mandarin a hard language to learn?
In English we add tones to change the meaning of sentences. For example, if we inflect the end of a sentence we are usually asking a question. In Mandarin, every word carries a tone that changes its meaning. But that’s not all – there are four tones. It’s hard to get our head (and tongue) around. Literally.
I just asked one of my high school students to explain how this works – the word ma can be loosely translated – depending on its tone to: mother, horse, saying bad words or chiding a child, and that tingling feeling you get when you hit your arm on a desk. If these translations are incorrect – they were doing their best to translate – forgive them, and forgive me. It also gives you an idea of the complexity Mandarin learners are dealing with. Also – that a sprit of forgiveness is essential – forgiving yourself for mistakes, and forgiving learners for making those mistakes.
Why learn Mandarin if it is so difficult? Everyone is learning English anyway.
I’m going to start Mandarin classes in January. I know that it will be difficult and I’ll probably be incomprehensible, but, I think there is value.
When I lived in Turkey – I went to Turkish school. I was a terrible student. I didn’t do my homework, I spoke in English all the time, I learned how to say teneffüs istiyorum (I want a break) and used that phrase all the time. BUT, it did give me some empathy for my students, helped me understand some of the problems they were having with learning English (the grammar is very different), and how boring and frustrating language classes can be.
Saying the few simple sentences I know in Cantonese or Mandarin gets me a lot of positive attention at my school. Actually, eating with chopsticks probably gets as much attention. The reaction to Mark Zuckerberg by the audience in Tsinghua, was very similar. People like it when you try to speak their language, or adopt their customs. If it’s done in a respectful way, of course.
Learning the language of your students, or your colleagues, or a nation of 1.3 billion people is a great way to build a rapport. It’s a great way to build respect. And it’s a wonderful way to support your Mandarin speaking learners. You aren’t going to be fluent overnight, but it does give you some perspective with people trying to learn English (another confusing and difficult language)
Mark Zuckerberg, we might not agree on many things – but big up yourself for learning Mandarin.