Zuckerberg's Mandarin, ch. 2

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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?


  1. Scott Robinson said,

    October 26, 2015 @ 11:36 pm

    What kind of crash courses would you recommend for those problems?

  2. vivian said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 12:56 am

    i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg.

    does this mean spelling isn't quite important?

  3. Cyndy Ning said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 2:58 am

    Victor: I think your assessment is overly harsh. In your own words, "Mirabile dictu, (we can) understand almost everything that Zuckerberg said, and what he said was entertaining and made sense." Although his pronunciation is challenging, he is succeeding in conveying original ideas as well as his passion and conviction reliably to his audience. That's really admirable! His listeners clapped in the right places, laughed in the right places, indicating that they too understood everything he was saying. I estimate that Mark would test at some level of Advanced on the ACTFL/ILR proficiency scale if he were to submit to a formal OPI. When he says, "My Chinese is terrible," I suspect he refers to his pronunciation. Certainly, as you point out, his grammar and vocabulary are quite good. Pronunciation is best honed at an early age; for an adult, no pedagogy will guarantee a faultless accent, whereas most 5-year olds in an immersion setting will pick up the cadence and articulation of the native speaker.
    Thanks for sharing the clip, Victor, and 加油 (keep it up!) to Mark!

  4. Chris Garland - Q Language said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 3:55 am

    Interesting commentary, Victor, and some valid points. I must, however, echo the sentiments of Cindy Ning: Despite his pronunciation, most of what Zuckerberg said was understood and seemingly appreciated. Pronunciation is a real challenge for the majority of westerners attempting to learn any Chinese dialect and all efforts to learn Chinese should be applauded and perhaps not quite so harshly criticised. I do agree, on the other hand, that some intensive work on his pronunciation wouldn't go amiss!

  5. Bob Ladd said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 4:30 am

    "Does that means tone aren't very important?" I don't think so; it just means that terrible foreign accents often succeed in being intelligible, because language is redundant. The post concentrates on problems with tone, but nevertheless also mentions the potential confusion between shuí and xuě, and could almost certainly have found lots of other non-tonal things to critique.

  6. Jonathan Badger said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 6:04 am

    "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."

    What amount of time on the student's part are you talking about, though? Full-time studying like at the Defense Language Institute or just an hour or so a day like most people are limited to?

  7. shubert said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 6:08 am

    Prof.'s remark is important although Zack's is understandable; I met a Princeton female at Peking Univ. , whose tones are quite right. One of the solutions is to reveal the secret in tones.

  8. shubert said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 6:13 am

    In addition, most of Indian people's English pronunciation is terrible for non natives, but they still, as you know…

  9. Bruce said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 9:07 am

    shubert: Doesn't seem surprising. Unless you mean a Princeton female who is a non-native Chinese speaker? :)

  10. shubert said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 9:44 am

    @Bruce: ) She is "white", with a white husband or companion I happened to meet. Prof. V.M. mentioned DaShan, whose father preached in China, that makes difference.

  11. popegrutch said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 10:25 am

    "…most native speakers of Chinese (as is true of the native speakers of virtually all foreign languages) are devoid of any sense…"

    Is it even possible to be a "native" speaker of a "foreign" language?

  12. Victor Mair said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 10:36 am


    Yes, from the point of view of a speaker of a given language such as English.

    In foreign language departments all over the world, there is often an attempt to hire native speakers of those languages as lecturers and instructors.

  13. JS said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 11:32 am

    Re: point on tone, yes to redundancy, and in particular, the tone space is only so big — four options, basically. So kinda like if someone tended to mix up syllable initial p/b/m/f in English (and were using mostly two-syllable words.) In isolation, pig/big/mig/fig would of course present problems, but given longer words, and sufficient context, this wouldn't hinder understanding substantially.

  14. Alyssa said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 12:43 pm

    Do we know what dialect his wife and her family speaks? Perhaps he's learning one set of tones from his tutor and then hearing a different set when he practices with his wife. I'd imagine that would cause a lot of confusion.

  15. shubert said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 1:14 pm

    @Alyssa: "Cantonese, her native tongue".

  16. julie lee said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 2:07 pm

    I agree with Professor Mair that Zuckerberg's vocabulary and grammar are much better than his pronunciation.
    I had to strain to understand what he was saying, so it felt as if he was speaking for 40 minutes instead of 20. But his speech was an admirable effort. Yes, he could use a much better teacher for his pronunciation, including the tones.

  17. Gene Callahan said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 5:48 pm

    "In addition, most of Indian people's English pronunciation is terrible for non natives, but they still, as you know…"

    Well, this sentence is terrible for native people or for non native people! I can't even sort ought what you were trying to say. Most Indians have bad English accents? It is bad even in terms of the general non-native?

    Both of those statements are false to my ears, so I am at a loss.

  18. shubert said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 6:28 pm

    Same as Mark's speech, a native Chinese can grasp quite well, but not for a Chinese learner. It is harder because he did not hear repeatedly for those rather plain words, so cannot absorbs like 一目十行 take in ten lines at a glance—read rapidly.
    Indian speech of English is acceptable for native English speakers, (not for English leaners) otherwise they could not take top positions.

  19. Matt said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 8:01 pm

    From the description in the post, I gather that his grammar and vocabulary are pretty good but his pronunciation is bad — so, for example, if this address had been shared as a document written in toneless pinyin rather than a video, one would have a much more favorable view of his proficiency in Chinese. That strongly suggests that he's studying Chinese mostly on the page and not really focusing on speaking/listening, which would make sense if (as one might suspect) his commitments make it more difficult to sit down regularly with a teacher and talk than to find 30 minutes to do exercises in a book or whatever.

  20. Pattira said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 11:57 pm

    I agree with Prof. Mair. As a native speaker of Thai, a tone language, if foreigners speak Thai with sloppy tones, sometimes I still have difficulties understanding them.

    Similarly, when I speak English with incorrect stress and intonation, native speakers tend to not understand what I'm saying.

    I think pronunciation is the most fundamental aspect of learning languages. I have been taught with wrong pronunciation for more than 10 years, so it's hard for me to change now but I'm still trying.

  21. Jenny Chu said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 4:11 am

    For some people, it's far from clear that serious study, even with an excellent teacher, will ever get them to be able to reproduce phonological tones consistently.

    Anecdotally speaking, I am convinced that some adult learners have just got what it takes to achieve passable pronunciation (especially tones), and some people just ain't got it.

    Anecdote 1: When I lived in Hanoi and had many backpacking visitors who were using my house as a kick-off for their trips, I made the point of sitting each of them down and giving them a few basic pronunciation lessons in Vietnamese. I am a trained linguist and (if I do so say myself) a pretty good teacher. A small number of my impromptu students got the tones almost instantly. Many struggled but got the fundamentals after a few sessions. One young man in particular – who stayed in Hanoi longer and got twice as many lessons as the others, and was three times as diligent – just never got it. It was heartbreaking to hear him try.

    Anecdote 2: I am lazy in my language learning, and was busy with other things during the years I lived in Hanoi, but picked up Vietnamese pronunciation easily. After a few years, I compared notes with someone who had been studying formally with Hanoi's top teachers, and had put in an effort much greater than mine. The result was that his vocabulary was broader, and his grammar was probably better, but he was still not able to naturally express nuance as well as I was through (sentence-level) intonation, because even after all those years he still had to think hard before pronouncing each tone to ensure he was doing it correctly.

    Anecdote 3: In the last 16 years here in Hong Kong I have met many people who are learning Cantonese not from the page – because of the deplorable lack of transliteration standardization here – but from the street (or the bedroom!). They speak confidently and quickly but with atrocious tones. I can pronounce all the tones but my vocabulary is very limited. Can I say their, or my, Cantonese is any "worse" than the English of many French people I know, who can give me a long lecture on any topic in English, but can't pronounce "the"?

  22. AI said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 6:43 pm

    I must agree with others that Prof. Mair is being unduly harsh with Mr. Zuckerberg. My Chinese is nowhere near good enough to pass comment but native speakers and others here all seem to agree that they can fully understand what Mr. Zuckerberg is saying even if his accent and tones are substandard.

    How is it possible to rank Mr. Zuckerberg's Chinese as a 1 "or a tad higher" when his audience understands him ? The point of learning a language is communication and it would appear that Mr. Zuckerberg has achieved this. He is not in training to be a spy or a professor of Chinese thus there is no reason for him to perfect his pronunciation however much a teacher of Chinese would like all students to attain such a standard.

    By the same standard surely Henry Kissinger must be judged a 1 "or a tad higher" in his ability in English. It doesn't seem to have affected his career.

    I wouldn't doubt that Mr. Zuckerberg would like to have better pronunciation and one would think that his wife lets him know how odd he sounds but I am sure that he has many, many claims on his time and in such a situation to achieve a proficiency in Chinese sufficient to address an audience confidently is laudable.

  23. Edward J. Cunningham said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 11:12 pm

    Jenny Chu has a good point. It may well be that with diligent effort and study, I'll be able to read and write Spanish or French fluently, and speak it acceptably. But no matter how well I learn those languages on the page, I know that I will never be able to speak either of those languages fluently for a very simple reason—I cannot roll my tongue to make the "r" sounds those languages demand. It may just be that just as with Ms. Chu's student who studied and practiced hard but could not get Vietnamese tones, other foreigners won't be able to fully pronounce tonal languages like Chinese because they didn't grow up in China.

    If Chinese natives can understand Mark Zuckerburg and accept his imperfections, so will I.

  24. Nikhil Sonnad said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 1:16 pm

    This is Nikhil, author of the Quartz post linked by Dr. Mair above.

    Regarding the tones, there are a couple points to make. First, we ran the video by several native speakers and they all agreed that they understood almost all (but importantly, not all) of what Zuckerberg was saying, though only when really focusing to parse the words. This is almost entirely the fault of his tones as his grammar and vocab were largely fine. (Though it should be noted that he had some kind of display at his disposal at bottom of the stage, which he refers to fairly often.)

    Ao, as long as his tones are at this level, Zuckerberg will find it hard to reach the critical point at which it is easier to converse with native speakers in Mandarin than in English. This is especially the case given that most Chinese speakers he talks to are probably young and wealthy, ie, speak English quite well.

    The second point on the tones is that—and Dr. Mair would have a much more scientific assessment of this than I—there is a pretty low upper limit to how complex your vocabulary can get with bad tones. When you are using very common words and constructions, people can infer most of what you mean even if it isn't clear. But once you are trying to quote weird technology terms from a newspaper or use words that native speakers might themselves have only heard a handful of times, poor tones will make you completely incomprehensible.

    I wish Mr Zuckerberg all the best in improving his tones.

  25. K. Chang said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 3:58 pm

    Mr. Zuckerberg is understandable, but that's more due to the contextual and fault-tolerant nature of Chinese than his language ability, IMHO.

    He sounds like people who don't speak Chinese and got all the tones wrong. I had an aunt like that. She was from Burma and thus her Chinese is marginal.

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