Senator Lu Tian Na

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President Obama's ability to exchange basic Indonesian pleasantries may render him more bi-courteous than bilingual, but New York's new junior senator appears to have significantly more proficiency in another Asian language: Mandarin Chinese. David Chen of the New York Times reports:

She had them at “Ni hao ma.”

When Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand grabbed the microphone at the Lunar New Year parade in Chinatown two weeks ago, she blurted, “Ni hao ma, zenma yang?” in Mandarin, or “Hello, how’s it going?” Later that day, after wrapping up a meeting with local leaders at a senior center, she walked by a few card tables and said, “Hao bu hao?” or “Are you doing O.K.?”

It is customary for politicians eager to connect with ethnic voters to butcher a few words in Spanish, Chinese or other foreign tongues. But Ms. Gillibrand is no ordinary politician when it comes to linguistic and cultural comfort: as an Asian studies major at Dartmouth, she studied for six months in China and Taiwan, becoming proficient enough to absorb stories in Chinese newspapers, and later spent four months in Hong Kong as a corporate lawyer.

Ms. Gillibrand’s Chinese is rusty now. But she tells her 5-year-old son, “man man yi diar,” or “slow down a little,” and calls chopsticks “kuaizi,” out of habit. And she can still converse for a few minutes, as evidenced when a reporter from a New York City-based Chinese-language newspaper trying to learn her Chinese name unexpectedly found an enthusiastic Ms. Gillibrand on the line.

“She definitely understood what I was saying, and she had good pronunciation,” said the reporter, Yan Tai, who writes for The World Journal. “Actually, I was very impressed.”

Ms. Gillibrand gravitated toward Chinese in college, she said, because she had never been to Asia and she loved the artistry of Chinese characters. Her Chinese name, Lu Tian Na, reflected a routine transliteration of her name. Tian Na (heaven and beautiful, respectively) represents Tina, which she was known as growing up, and the surname Lu (which means land) was thought to be a close match to her maiden name, Rutnik, and adds poetry and meaning to her Chinese name.

Ms. Gillibrand has forgotten many of the 2,000 characters she once memorized. But she still comfortably wields the q’s, z’s and x’s of the Pinyin romanization system when e-mailing friends or acquaintances.

She talked briefly in Mandarin with this reporter, too, but said that she wants to brush up, and hopes her older son, Theo, now 5, pursues Chinese in school so they can converse. But she can occasionally surprise: a few years ago, Mr. Hendon [a fellow Dartmouth student] said that he bumped into Ms. Gillibrand on the street in New York, and she greeted him with “Han Sai Si!” — his Chinese name at Dartmouth.

[Update: Some earlier reporting on this can be found at the Capitol Confidential blog of the Albany Times-Union.]


  1. GAC said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

    Interesting. Some things that hit me.

    1) “Ni hao ma.” — I've gotten the impression that 你好吗 isn't all that common a greeting, especially if you put it together with 怎么样? (both of them could be translated loosely as "How are you?"). Probably not a big thing, though I wonder if the writer didn't mistranscribe the second part. Any native speakers reading that think 你好吗,怎么样? is odd (normal being 你好,怎么样?)?

    2) "But she still comfortably wields the q’s, z’s and x’s of the Pinyin romanization system when e-mailing friends or acquaintances." — First, very nice that her Chinese friends are that comfortable in pinyin, some of mine aren't. I wonder if she has her computer set up for an IME. Very good that she handles pinyin well, though — especially reading aloud. It's actually a very good romanization, but it's counterintuitive to English speakers.

    Other than that, I can't say much. Her Chinese is probably a lot better than mine. Good to see there are some in our government that have such skills.

  2. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

    Sam Sullivan, mayor of Vancouver from 2005 to 2008, was the first mayor of Vancouver to be able to read Chinese and speak basic Cantonese.

    People whose mother tongue is Chinese constitute 25% of Vancouver's population (more precisely, this is the total of the four categories "Cantonese", "Mandarin", "Taiwanese", and "Chinese (not otherwise specified)" in the 2006 census).

    I'm not sure I'd say that Vancouver mayors "ought" to be able to speak Chinese, but it is refreshing when some of the people in public office are able to communicate with a significant minority of the population whose language is sometimes underrepresented among public servants.

  3. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 5:05 am

    Sure enough, we get the obligatory reference to the impressive number of characters (2,000) Sen Gillibrand "once memorized". This is almost the standard way native speakers of Chinese assess & describe competence in their language. That's simply not the way languages work; but there still seems to be a belief that, in the case of Chinese, the characters somehow are the language.

  4. Randy Alexander said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 8:50 am

    @Nigel: I'm not sure where you got the idea that native speakers of Chinese assess & describe competence in their language, let alone that being any kind of standard. I've asked that question of many native speakers and all I've ever gotten is a look like I'm from another planet. How can a person have any idea how many characters they know (unless they can count them on one hand)? That would be like being able to say how many words are in your vocabulary.

  5. Mark Liberman said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 9:02 am

    Randy Alexander: How can a person have any idea how many characters they know (unless they can count them on one hand)?

    One logical way to estimate this would be to choose a modest random sample of M characters from a large set of size N, and test the person on knowledge of the sample. If K out of M characters are "known" (whatever that is defined to mean), then we can estimate that the person tested "knows" at least N*(K/M) characters. (The modifier "at least" is there because some characters not in the large set might perhaps also be known.)

    Variants of this technique have often been used to estimate how many "words" someone "knows". The main issues with the technique are the questions of which things to count as "words", and how to define and test "know".

    I agree that most English speakers (for example) are unlikely to have such an estimate of their lexical knowledge at hand. But in the case of Chinese characters, aren't there standard sets that people are supposed to have been taught by various ages, and tests to determine whether this is true? This would put some sort of lower bound on the number of characters "known" (in some sense), for those people who scored well on the test, at least.

  6. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 9:07 am

    @Randy: Point taken. I think I was conflating 2 different ideas. I don't think it would be too unfair to say that NSCs often equate the characters with the language. But character-counting (particularly in questions such as "How many characters do you know?") is probably something that foreign non-speakers of Chinese tend to indulge in. It would be interesting whether it was Chen or Gillibrand who quantified the (now — sadly — largely forgotten) characters.

  7. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 9:10 am

    oops: I meant "interesting to know whether…".

  8. J.J. E. said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 11:19 am

    Re: # of Characters memorized

    I think it is rare for native speakers of Chinese to talk about how many characters they know. I live in Taiwan and I haven't heard native speakers talk about it that way often and a quick anecdote from my gf indicates that "people don't really talk about it that way" as well. However, it is VERY common among non-native speakers who learn Chinese, especially because there are a couple of standard lists that are easily enumerable. For example, in "Reading & Writing Chinese" by William McNaughton & Li Ying, they include something called the "Official 2,000" or similar (the book is at my office, so I forgot the exact name). I think many schools will use a book like that that has all the characters counted, so they'll just cite "2,000" or whatever number the book had in it as their knowledge.

  9. Jesse Tseng said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    Here's an on-line version of the sort of test Mark described. Apparently the characters are chosen randomly from a lexicon of up to 3755 characters. The test is multiple-choice (and they don't try to include tricky choices), so it's easier than it should be ideally. It tests both pronunciation and meaning, because learners often find that they know what a character means, but don't remember how to pronounce it, or (more rarely) the other way around.

    In Chinese-language school systems, the people who come up with the standard curriculum know how many characters are being taught at each level. The students themselves don't know and don't care; we're talking about elementary school children here. Adult learners of Chinese are naturally more aware of exactly what they're learning and are more concerned with measuring their progress. The number of characters memorized is a valid measure; I don't think anyone is saying that it's the best/only one, or that the characters are the language, but you do still have to learn them (if you're interested in written Chinese). And we can expect this number to be loosely correlated with progress in other areas. For example, I suspect that in Sen. Gillibrand's case, "2000 characters" means that she maxed out the undergraduate Chinese program at her college.

  10. Francisco C. Kortman said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    I remember taking a year of Mandarin in College at BYU. It would not be difficult to know how many characters you had memorized, considering each chapter in the textbook indicated how many characters were learned that week. If she did have a structured course that taught her the pinyin as well as the characters and was regularly examined, it would not be difficult to account for all the characters learned. I can relate to forgetting as well. I have essays I wrote during class and exams that I can no longer read entirely; I have to pick out words, verbs and phrases.

  11. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

    I wonder about those 2,000 characters the Senator memorized. So much would depend on the extent to which they were internalized. In the DeFrancis series discussed recently on LL, the number of characters used in the 3 stages totals 1,200, while the number of (mainly 2-character) compounds is about 7,000. According to figures quoted by DeFrancis in Advanced Chinese Reader (1968), this represents about ¼ of the characters and 1/6 to 1/9 [sic in that order] of the compounds known to "Chinese college graduates". I'm sure there must be more recent, & perhaps more accurate, figures — including important data on frequencies.

    No one who had the stamina to work through the entire DeF series, with its huge amount of reading material and carefully planned repetition & revision, would, I suggest, ever forget "most" of that relatively limited corpus of characters. So I'm left wondering whether the Senator's 2,000 characters were learned in the form of lists divorced from the contexts in which they're normally used in written Chinese.

  12. Bob Ladd said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

    @Nigel Greenwood: "No one who had the stamina to work through the entire DeF series, with its huge amount of reading material and carefully planned repetition & revision, would, I suggest, ever forget "most" of that relatively limited corpus of characters."

    I disagree, and I think there's at least plenty of anecdotal evidence to think that less-frequent characters are forgotten relatively quickly among native speakers abroad. Specifically with regard to foreign learners and the wonderful resource of DeFrancis's text, I can offer the following from my own experience. I took two years of Chinese as an undergraduate and got through to the end of the then-new DeF Intermediate Chinese Reader with enough stamina to get A's in Chinese; as I recall I "knew" about 1000 characters when I graduated. Six years later I found myself in Taiwan and was able to converse well enough to be a successful low-budget traveler years before English became the universal language of tourism (1974, to be exact). But whenever a conversation would lead someone to suggest writing down an address or a name for me, I would always have to reply "wo bu hui nian zi" (I can't read), which given my relative spoken fluency occasioned a few puzzled looks. In context I could recognize the characters for things like "bank" and "restaurant" and on a menu I could tell the soup section and the beef and pork and fish sections, but that was about it. I estimated that only about 100 of the 1000 characters I had known six years earlier were still there in any useful way.

  13. joseph palmer said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 9:53 pm

    Along with the number of characters, the ability to read newspapers is often brought up in conncetion with chinese. Personally I'm sure I know a lot more than 2000 characters but newspapers are still a strain, because they are so full of unfamilar abbreviations, names and jargon, and they reflect a culture very different from my own.

    Anyway, some public official speaks ropey Chinese. Is that still a story in 2009?

  14. TB said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 2:56 am

    People in Japan often asked me how many kanji I knew. It was a difficult question for me (I have no idea how many, and even the ones I "know" often have readings which I don't know), but I would make an estimate every time, based on the criteria for the level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test that I was taking that year.

  15. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:56 am

    @ TB: Japanese is rather different from Chinese, in that there is an official list of 1945 characters "in common use" (the so-called Jōyō kanji). I believe there are also other lists, eg characters used in personal names.

  16. KYL said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 10:30 am

    @joseph palmer

    It is a news story in 2009 because it's very rare in the US to find public officials who know Chinese, even if a relatively large portion of the electorate do. The article notes that she's only one of two people in the entire Congress who can speak some form of Chinese at all. (The other person is Representative David Wu of Oregon). Perhaps you are used to it where you are — would be interesting to know where that is — but anything rare counts as news.

  17. John Spevacek said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    Mark and Jesse,

    Any idea if such a test exists for English?

  18. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 7:42 am

    @ John Spevacek: I'm sure there are vocabulary tests available for English. But for comparability with English word-counts you'd need to get an estimate of compounds in Chinese rather than characters, which represent morphemes. David Crystal's estimates for English, quoted by Michael Quinion, are pretty close to the DeFrancis figures for Chinese compounds I mentioned above (~60K).

  19. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    PS The study referred to by DeFrancis in the preface to his Advanced Chinese Reader is "How Many Words do Chinese Know?" by Chao C, Chao T & Chang F (JCLTA, II, 2 [May 1967]). J DeF's own views on teaching Chinese were set forth in his article "Why Johnny Can't Read Chinese" (JCLTA, I, 1 [February 1966]). This amusing title is a reference to Rudolf Flesch's well-known book on phonics, Why Johnny Can't Read (1955).

  20. Aoede said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 11:46 am


    Chinese was my first language, and I lived in Taiwan for four years. I've never heard anyone say "ni hao ma, zen mo yang" — just plain "ni hao", yeah, but even "ni hao ma" is really more of a question than a greeting, considering that "ma" is one of those question-particle thingamabobs. And "zen mo yang" is so… brusque.

  21. Jim said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

    "And "zen mo yang" is so… brusque."

    That's just you candy-*ss southern types. Our peer tutor from Beijing used it as her standard greeting back in the 70's.

  22. FFL said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

    Trying to generalize what a Taiwanese person would say to different parts of China is ridiculous. There's no monolithic standard for saying Hi in China, different regions will have different ways of saying things.

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