Zuckerberg's Mandarin

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The world is abuzz: "Zuckerberg Wows Beijing Audience With Fluent Mandarin", PCMag (10/22/14). Also on Facebook (of course), and many other sites, including this AP article that called Zuckerberg's pronunciation "far from fluent." See and hear for yourself:

The audience went nuts over almost every syllable. Zuckerberg's Mandarin is not bad. I give him a lot of credit for his resourcefulness in being able to convey significant information with limited resources. Zuckerberg demonstrated a high level of communication skills, if not communicative competence.

Of course, it's possible to be critical of Zuckerberg's Mandarin, as were Gwynn Guilford and Nikhil Sonnad in "The most important things Mark Zuckerberg just said in broken Chinese", Quartz (23/10/14):

Zuckerberg’s aplomb is indeed impressive. And for someone of his Mandarin level, speaking for 30 minutes and fielding questions isn’t easy. But those blown away by Zuck’s Chinese chinwag might want to know that though he’s clearly memorized a lot of relevant words, those were still shoehorned into a distinctly American grammatical order. Pronunciation is also a problem: He showed a plucky disregard for the tones that Mandarin has—one tonal slip-up had him saying that Facebook boasts eleven mobile users instead of 1 billion—and his enunciation was roughly on par with the clarity possible when someone’s stepping on your face.

His tones are indeed a bit wobbly, and his grammar shaky at times, but his pronunciation (vowels and consonants) is generally acceptable, and he has a decent range of vocabulary (actually surprisingly good for someone at his stage of learning the language). I would put him at about 3/4 of the way through intensive first-year Mandarin.

Zuckerberg is not the least bit afraid to speak Mandarin, even in front of a large audience, and actually enjoys holding forth in his newly acquired tongue, though he knows he's not that great at it. " Wǒ de Zhōngwén hěn zāogāo 我的中文很糟糕" ("My Chinese is terrible" [lit., "messy cake"]), he says with a big smile. Never mind, " Wǒ shì yī shì 我试一试" ("I'll give it a try"), and " Wǒ xǐhuān tiǎozhàn 我喜欢挑战" ("I like challenges"). Every line he utters brings the house down.

On a scale of 1-5, I'd put Zuckerberg at about 1 or maybe a tad higher. He's definitely better than Gary Locke, who would rank near 0 in Mandarin and not much better than that in Toisanese / Hoisanese.

Zuckerberg is not yet as good as Jon Huntsman, Jr., whom I'd rank somewhere between 2.5 and 3. (See "What did Huntsman say to Colbert in Mandarin?" and more here and here.)

Kevin Rudd, who was twice Prime Minister of Australia, has excellent Mandarin (perhaps as high as 4.5). (See Youtube clips here and here, starting at 0:36.)

Eventually, if he works hard at it and continues to have as much fun speaking Mandarin as he does now, Zuckerberg has the potential to work up to the level of Huntsman or even Rudd. However, no matter how good his Mandarin becomes and how much charm he exudes, Zuckerberg's linguistic prowess won't have any impact on the hard hearts of the bureaucrats who have outlawed Facebook in China, despite the fact that they allow it for their own media organs, such as Global Times and even People's Daily.

"Good good study," Mark, "day day up"!

hǎohǎo xuéxí 好好学习
tiāntiān xiàngshàng 天天向上
"Study hard and make progress every day"
(explained here)


  1. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 1:32 pm

    If there's one way to get your competence up, it's surely throwing yourself into high pressure situations where you have no choice but to speak.

    Possibly even more effective than my patented method of reading grammar textbooks over and over again and never daring to speak to an actual native speaker, then giving up after a year and moving on to another language. Currently serving me really well in Russian.

  2. david said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 2:19 pm

    From the google translation of the speech

    Moderator: The next question, you and the wife who is Chinese better?

    Zuckerberg: Mandarin, I can say more words, her hearing is better than mine. One day I asked her to ask what I'm hearing is poor, she said, hearing your English is poor.

    I have the sense that my wife can say more Japanese words than I can but my hearing Japanese speech is better than hers. I wonder if this difference in skills is common.

    I'm not clear on the last sentence, perhaps his hearing of English words is also poor, compared to hers. The Chinese transcript is at http://tech.qq.com/a/20141023/004696.htm

  3. S Frankel said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

    It'd be interesting to know if Google Translate does a better job it is has a better Mandaring input.

  4. Joe said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 3:36 pm

    @David: The Guilford/Sonnad article translates the last sentence, "One day I asked her why my listening was so bad and she said ‘your listening is bad in English, too.'”

  5. Michael Watts said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 8:04 pm

    Google Translate will generally fall down on the job when given native Mandarin as input.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 9:06 pm

    Mark Zuckerberg's Mandarin: what would Confucius have said?

    The Facebook founder wowed a Chinese audience this week with his grasp of Mandarin. Malcolm Moore in Beijing, who has struggled with the language for seven years, explains how well he did.


    Moore emphasizes how difficult it is to learn "Chinese". I would agree with him, but only halfway. As I've said on countless occasions: I've studied a lot of languages, but Mandarin is the easiest one I've learned to speak, though by far the hardest one I've struggled to write.

    However, I couldn't agree more with Moore's assessment of the spurious "Chineasy" method for leaning characters:


    The "Chineasy" pictogram cards popular in Britain are charming, but not a magic bullet. You may learn to recognise a few Chinese pictograms, but they do not teach pronunciation and the sea of non-pictographic characters stretches to the horizon.


    The "Chineasy" method is so deficient that it is really not even practical for learning the few pictograms and ideograms that it introduces. For the reasons why, see these two posts:

    "Chineasy? Not" (3/19/14)


    "Chineasy2" (8/14/14)


    BTW, I wonder whether Zuckerberg is paying any attention to the writing system. I have long advocated a pedagogy for Mandarin whereby one completely (or almost entirely) ignores the characters until one is fluent in speaking. If Zuckerberg is learning Mandarin strictly through romanization, that is a smart move and may help to account for his relatively rapid progress in gaining a modicum of fluency in the spoken language.

    "How to learn Chinese and Japanese" (2/17/14)


    "How to learn to read Chinese" (5/2508)


  7. Thomas Bartlett said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 10:37 pm

    After all the hubub about Kevin Rudd's level of spoken Chinese, it was disappointing to hear him speak in the two videos linked above. Didn't his and my joint teacher, Beverley Fincher 洪越碧老師, use the GR tonal romanization, invented by her teacher Y. R. Chao 趙元任, when she taught Rudd's classes at ANU? She surely used GR in her classes that I attended at Middlebury in summer 1967. My guess is that in Australia she switched to teaching in Pinyin, a vastly inferior system, but I hope I'm wrong about that. Anyway, KR certainly does not have reliable control of tones; he repeatedly mispronounced guan1 觀 in guan1nian4 觀念 "concept", as if it were guan4 觀 in Dal4guan4 道觀 “Daoist monastery". And there were several other similar cases. What's remarkable about KR's Chinese is the symbolic effect created by him, as head of the Australian Labor Party and later as Prime Minister, speaking Mandarin during at least the ceremonial introductions of his meetings with high Chinese officials. I am confident that he spoke English during the substantial business meetings with Chinese counterparts.

  8. Christopher Culver said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 1:06 am

    "Mandarin is the easiest one I've learned to speak, though by far the hardest one I've struggled to write."

    I learned Mandarin at Defense Language Institute while serving in the Navy. I found it easy to learn new vocabulary from pinyin, but the writing system was daunting. For me and my classmates, even the <600 characters we were expected to learn was a burden that we would constantly bitch and moan about. After I left the military I haven't used Mandarin so much. My speaking skills are slightly rusty, though a few well-timed trips to China have given me enough practice not to forget the language entirely, and on each trip I've found that I could bootstrap myself to greater proficiency by just talking to people.

    Somewhat recently I decided to give learning at least 1500-odd basic characters another go, and this time I learned them remarkably quickly. Apparently years of hearing about the phonetic/radical system in the background of my linguistics pursuits have made my brain more willing to assimilate all these forms. Plus, now that I am studying it on my own instead of it being an obligation, I could experiment with different memorization methods, and in the digital era there are new ways of making flashcards.

    So for anyone who tried learning to read Chinese years ago and gave up in frustration, give it a fresh try and you might be surprised. Of course, I've not reached the level of tackling literature like Prof. Mair, but even finally being able to read the signs around me in a Chinese street feels like a great accomplishment.

  9. Michael Rank said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 2:00 am

    Judging by the sycophantic tittering, the personality cult lives on in China.

  10. Jonathan O'Connor said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 3:38 am

    @Michael Rank: Many years ago, I spoke at a conference in Holland. I spent 4 hours learning a one minute introduction in Dutch to my talk. Most of the time was getting the pronunciation as good as I could. The audience loved it. They appreciated that I had taken time to learn a little of their language.

    I'm sure the Chinese audience was very appreciative of the huge effort that Zuckerberg has made.

  11. Bruce Humes said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 4:27 am

    What a contrast with Yahoo's Jerry Yang and a PowerPoint presentation I saw him make in Beijing in the late 90s or perhaps 2002 or so.

    I couldn't believe my ears. I knew that he was born in Taiwan and learned English only in his teens — yet he insisted on doing his gig in English, even though myself apart, there didn't seem to be another laowai amidst thousands of locals.

    It struck me at the time that while superficially impressive to the crowd of native Chinese speakers, sticking to English didn't seem like a great way to "connect" on the emotional level. Years later when he refused to bow out from Yahoo, despite a series of disastrous leadership decisions, his deafness to his stock-holders seemed almost predictable to me . . .

  12. GeorgeW said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 5:25 am

    My hat is off to Zuckerberg for attempting to learn Mandarin and the guts to attempt it for such a period of time in a public setting. He has what must be a demanding, time-consuming day job running a major corporation.

    (And, I am not a fan of FaceBook)

  13. Gerald said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 5:37 am

    Everybody seems so focused on just how good or bad his skills were. What interests me much more and seems much more noteworthy to me is what it tells us that "The audience went nuts over almost every syllable." and that this sets the newsrooms and blogosphere so ablaze…

  14. Richard W said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 6:14 am

    @Thomas Bartlett, who wrote "it was disappointing to hear [Kevin Rudd] speak in the two videos linked above. Didn't his […] teacher, Beverley Fincher […] use […] GR tonal romanization […] when she taught Rudd's classes at ANU?

    I'm as much a fan of GR as anyone, but however good GR is, it doesn't necessarily result in perfect diction, does it? Is it possible to say from an individual's speech which romanization system they likely used in studying Mandarin? Aren't there too many other factors involved? Is Pinyin so bad that "disappointing" pronunciation is the inevitable result of learning with it?

    By the way, I contacted you in 2000, and you were kind enough to invite me to your home for a chat, answer my question about learning Mandarin in Melbourne in a course that used GR (it was impossible, as you indicated), and lend me a copy of the GR version of "Chinese Primer". I remain very grateful to you for all that.

  15. JS said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 10:17 am

    To say I'm "not a fan" of Facebook/Zuckerberg would be understating the case, and of course this is all at its heart a lame P.R. stunt. However, focusing only on his competence with Mandarin, I think Zuckerberg is undersold above — he will have prepped pieces of vocabulary and thought in fairly specific terms about the remarks he planned to make on this occasion, but he is nonetheless speaking largely spontaneously in a way that makes clear he has been studying Chinese for a considerable length of time; hours a week over multiple years, plainly. He just doesn't have a knack for pronunciation, tones in particular. This issue aside, he demonstrates higher competence than the vast majority of non-native undergraduate Chinese majors in the U.S. achieve, for instance.

    Addendum — tried to confirm the above via Google search:

    Nov. 18, 2011: "Zuckerberg said that he spent an hour studying Chinese every Wednesday and Friday and tried to learn more about the country by talking with staff from the Chinese mainland."

    Dec. 20, 2010: Zuckerberg has been "been learning Mandarin for some time […]"


  16. Clayton Davis said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 5:38 pm

    I'm just a little curious why he's learning Mandarin. He said he was learning it because his wife is "Chinese" 中国人, but his wife's family are ethnic Chinese from Vietnam so their Cantonese is probably way better. As a Cantonese learner (in addition to a Mandarin learner), I'd like to know if he also is learning Cantonese.

  17. Jeffrey Reeder said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 5:47 pm

    To me, one of the more interesting things about this discussion is that it's newsworthy at all, as it seems to depend on two facts:
    (1) a US public figure is (sort-of) multilingual, and that
    (2) the non-English language in (1) is Mandarin

    Other than those two things, it wouldn't really be news, would it?
    I mean, it's not really an attention-grabbing headline to say "Smart, wealthy guy practices hundreds of hours, gets decently competent in another language."

    I'm not sure whether to be happy ("yay, another US public figure is making an effort to be multilingual") or sad ("Newsflash: a US public figure is at least as multilingual as hundreds of millions of other people").

    Anyway, here's some more press:

  18. college kid said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 6:35 pm

    In a US context, learning a foreign language is often the matter of having access to higher education and enough time on your hands. If you belong to such a privileged category, learning a foreign language is not so much ‘impressive’ as it is a ‘choice’, provided you work relatively hard.

    It might be considered impressive that Zuckerberg has managed to learn some Mandarin while also being the CEO of a large company, but I reserve such admiration for people working equally (or more) stressful jobs at minimum wage who still find the time to, say, cook for their families.

  19. Bruce said,

    October 25, 2014 @ 6:12 pm

    Great headline for a piece on the face of Facebook, his Chinese and those who preceded him:

    A Brief History of White Dudes Wowing People with Mandarin

  20. David Morris said,

    October 26, 2014 @ 5:52 am

    Having observed hundreds of ESL learners and reflecting on my own attempts to speak Korean, I believe that the first requirement in speaking another language a) at all, b) in public, is confidence, which Zuckerberg obviously has and I don't. Being rich and famous and having a sympathetic/sycophantic audience probably helps. Whenever I speak Korean, my wife's family or friends giggle, which doesn't help my confidence at all. She says 'They think you're cute'. I don't want to be cute. I want to be a competent second language speaker. I don't giggle at anything they say in English, let alone every time that they do, regardless of what they say.

  21. Dave Cragin said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 12:03 am

    For me, one of the delights of learning Chinese is the very positive reaction I get from almost any Chinese I meet – old, young, male or female, rich or poor. It’s extremely motivating and helps counterbalance the aspects of Chinese that make it hard to learn. Like Victor, I think the hardest part of learning Chinese is the writing, not the speaking.

    In terms of Zuckerberg’s Chinese, my sense is that he falls into what the linguist Jonathan McWhorter refers to an “integrative motivation” for learning the language. McWhorter offers 2 primary “affective” reasons for adult language learning:
    1) instrumental motivation: involves wanting to learn a language to achieve a concrete goal, i.e., for a job, for school, etc.

    2) integrative motivation – involves wanting to enter a fascinating culture or communicate fully with another human being.

    McWhorter notes that an instrumental speaker tends speak correctly, but not very fluently. They also tend not to progress much. An instrumental speaker is more likely to speak language as taught in books as opposed to using the language people normally use.

    In contrast, integrative learner tends to speak more fluently but with many more mistakes and makes much more progress. From watching the video, my sense is this describes Zuckerberg’s Chinese well. In addition, I expect he'd agree with the idea that speaking Chinese allows him to enter a fascinating culture.

    McWhorter's characterization well describes my personal experience with learning Chinese. I definitely started for concrete reasons and then found speaking it offered fascinating life experiences.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    November 1, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

    James Fallows of The Atlantic:

    "Mark Zuckerberg Speaking Chinese: Brave, Foolish, or Both?" (11/1/14)


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