Just a little over a year ago, Mark Zuckerberg unveiled to China and the world that he was willing to speak publicly in Mandarin: "Zuckerberg's Mandarin" (10/23/14).
That post includes a video which allows us to watch and listen to his every gesture and word. Now he's back at it again at the exact same location, Tsinghua University, China's premier engineering and science school:
(Or see: "Mark Zuckerberg’s 20-minute speech in clumsy Mandarin is his latest attempt to woo China," 10/26/15.)
Last year, on a scale of 1 to 5, I ranked Zuckerberg near the bottom with a score of "about 1 or maybe a tad higher". In all honesty, I must say that his performance this year is not much better; I still wouldn't be able to rank him at 1.5 or higher. Since he had already been studying Mandarin for several years before his 2014 Tsinghua appearance, and from all accounts rather assiduously at that, I can only conclude that his teachers are using bad pedagogy. He's intelligent, he's confident, he has a nimble tongue, possesses strong communicative skills, and is blessed with all the other attributes that make him potentially an excellent speaker of Mandarin. But Zuckerberg has gotten off on the wrong foot with his Mandarin learning.
I don't know what methods he is using, but they clearly are not the right ones. Apparently Zuckerberg practices with Facebook employees from China, but that is a very dangerous approach, because most native speakers of Chinese (as is true of the native speakers of virtually all foreign languages) are devoid of any sense of the pitfalls that foreign learners are prey to and how to guard against and correct basic errors.
A skillful teacher of Mandarin can take someone from level 0 to level 2 in about one year and up to level 3 or above in two years. With all of his resources, Zuckerberg ought to be able to locate and hire a much better teacher than the one he has now. It sounds to me, however, as though he's just picking up his Mandarin in a thoroughly unsystematic way, and nobody is willing to let him know when he is making mistakes.
Judging from his pronunciation, I doubt that Zuckerberg was ever exposed to the rudiments of Mandarin phonology. By now, his bad habits are probably so deeply ingrained that it will take a Herculean effort and the greatest good will to fix them.
I listened to last year's performance the whole way through several times, but it was more tolerable than this year's because it was broken up by the interviewer who spoke standard Mandarin. This year's performance was such a prolonged mish-mash that it was both painful and embarrassing.
A few examples:
- His second sentence, with rapidly rising gesture of extended arms that may have led his tones astray, is "dajia háo" (with low neutral tones on "dajia") for "dàjiā hǎo 大家好" ("hello everyone"). Elsewhere, his pronunciation of hǎo 好 ("good"), which nearly all students of Mandarin probably learn in the first week of classes, comes out in all manner of different tones or tonelessness, depending upon the emphasis of the sentences in which it occurs.
- He mispronounces another very basic word, rén 人 ("person; people"), as rèn and various other ways.
- As is true of many intermediate speakers of Mandarin, Zuckerberg is fond of the expression xiǎngyào 想要 ("want"), but — both this year and last — he pronounces it in any number of wobbling contours, yet almost never the right one.
- Another favorite expression of Zuckerberg is liànxí 练习 ("practice; exercise"). When he pronounces it, the tones are apt to come out upside down and backwards.
- Instead of saying dàxué 大学 ("university"), what he says comes out sounding like dàshuǐ 大水 ("flood").
Yet, mirabile dictu, I could understand almost everything that Zuckerberg said, and what he said was entertaining and made sense. I suppose that's because his command of vocabulary and grammar "hěn bùcuò 很不错" ("are not bad").
Last year it didn't matter how badly Zuckerberg mangled the tones; the audience lapped up every single syllable. This year they were more reserved. I strongly recommend that Zuckerberg take a rigorous crash course to clean up his unsteady tones.
When people from places like Shandong and Sichuan speak Mandarin, they also pronounce the tones differently from what they're supposed to be in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), but they do so in a consistent way. Consequently, though one registers them as nonstandard, one can eventually get used to them as being distinctive of a particular topolect.
A final word: since Zuckerberg was able to get his message across with execrable tones, does that mean that tones aren't very important?