"Speaks Mandarin Chinese, and Hokkien… whatever that is."

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Jon Huntsman, formerly the governor of Utah and ambassador to China, announced he was running for the Republican presidential nomination at a campaign kickoff event today at Liberty State Park in fair Jersey City. Before his announcement, the assembled crowd was treated to an introductory video. Among Huntsman's exceptional qualities listed by the folksy voiceover narrator was this: "Speaks Mandarin Chinese, and Hokkien… whatever that is."

(The relevant bit occurs at about 2:15 in the above video. You can catch the audio on C-SPAN as well.)

Talking Points Memo notes that "Hokkien is a Chinese dialect based in Taiwan, and spoken throughout Southeast Asia by about 47 million people." I wouldn't say Hokkien, a dialect of Min Nan Chinese, is "based in Taiwan" (it originated in the southern Fujian province), though it's common there, spoken by about 15 million Taiwanese. And that's where Huntsman learned it, along with Mandarin, as a Mormon missionary in 1987-88. The Taipei Times says he's fluent in both Mandarin and Hoklo (the latter being a local name for Taiwanese Hokkien), which is impressive if true. As Kerim Friedman points out via Twitter, "fluency is a funny term, but the missionaries get intensive language training and then spend all their time talking to people."

Though he might not appreciate the comparison, Huntsman's proficiency in two Chinese language varieties recalls Herbert Hoover, who worked in China as a mining engineer in his youth. Both he and his wife picked up Mandarin from their time there and supposedly used it around the White House.

We now face the fascinating prospect of having two major presidential candidates who can speak Asian languages with some degree of proficiency. President Obama, of course, knows Indonesian, from his time growing up in Jakarta. We've looked at Obama's Indonesian language skills in detail here, most recently last November when he peppered his speech at the University of Indonesia with local phrases, to the delight of the crowd.

Obama has had his own reasons for being reluctant to show off his Indonesian to a domestic audience (as I discussed with John McWhorter on Bloggingheads last September and then again on The Brian Lehrer Show after the University of Indonesia speech). I doubt we'll get to hear any Hokkien from Huntsman, given that the narrator of his own video plays it down with a disparaging "…whatever that is."

But Huntsman might be playing up his Mandarin a bit (if his advisers allow him to), since he's done it in the past as governor of Utah. Here is a speech he gave at the Asia Society National Chinese Language Conference in Chicago in May 2009, soon before resigning as governor to accept the ambassadorship to China. Refreshingly, he talks about the importance of learning foreign languages as a bridge to cross-cultural understanding. He also discusses his own acquisition of Mandarin and explains an initiative that has brought Chinese language programs to Utah public schools.

At about 4:30, he directs a Mandarin proverb to Gaston Caperton (former governor of West Virginia), who introduced him:

老 驥 伏 枥, 志 在 千 里
lǎo jì fú lì, zhì zài qiān lǐ
The old horse in the stable still yearns to run 1000 li [~500 km].

Huntsman concludes with another proverb dating back to the Han dynasty: "When the family is happy, then all is well under heaven." I wonder if he can use that to convince the Republican family to come together with him as the fatherly standard-bearer.

[Update #1, from John Emerson: "The proverb is from a poem by Cao Cao, a warlord whose son became the first Emperor of the Three Kingdoms Wei dynasty after 200 AD. The most popular Chinese style of poetry, the shi, was essentially established by the Cao clan (based on earlier anonymous poetry)."]

[Update #2: Robert Lane Greene has more to say on The Economist's Johnson blog, including the revelation that Mitt Romney (like John Kerry before him) is a secret Francophone.]


  1. Bobbie said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

    Maybe the narrator thought it was a language based on Tolkien!

    I suspect a bunch of xenophobic Republicans might be less than thrilled to find out that a candidate can speak several other languages. There was a lot of derision of Kerry's ability to speak French, for example.

  2. Henning Makholm said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

    I'm surprised he defines "li" as "about half a kilometer" (at 5:13 in the lower video). Isn't that supposed to be "about a third of a mile" in American English?

  3. Diane said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

    If he really did become fluent in not one but two languages, both very different from his native language, in just two years–and retains that ability decades later–I would be very impressed. I suspect it's a bit of an overstatement. Still, I think it's wonderful that we have a high-profile Republican who is proud of his multilinguality.

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

    In my limited experience, Taiwanese-Americans often call the dialect(s) of Hokkien spoken on Taiwan by the overwhelming majority of the population "Taiwanese" (which is presumably the version Huntsman learned since that's where he did his mission) when referring to the language in English. That would be a very sensible thing to call it in this sort of context, at least as sensible as referring to the "Hungarian" rather than "Magyar" language when introducing a politician (say, former Gov. Pataki, who can reputedly speak it a little) to a non-specialist American audience.

  5. kuri said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

    IME, Mormon missionaries generally become fluent in their mission language in well under two years. Spending 8 – 12 hours a day talking to people will do that for you. Learning two languages and maintaining proficiency for 20+ years is atypical though.

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

    Hey, here's some negative coverage of the post-video remarks made (presumably in English) by the candidate that should invoke prior LL discussions: "So if Governor Huntsman is no Reagan, who is he? He’s the GOP’s Barack Obama. In Huntsman’s announcement today, his remarks were infused with possessive pronouns, just like Obama." From http://dailycaller.com/2011/06/21/jon-huntsman-is-no-ronald-reagan/

    [(myl) A new low, maybe. More here.]

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

    But someone else on the same political-commentary website says "strangely enough, the video is nearly devoid in pronouns, as if it’s a script written by Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish."


    It is apparently very hard for a political campaign to exercise appropriate pronoun discipline satisfactory to all potential critics.

  8. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

    > I doubt we'll get to hear any Hokkien from Huntsman, given that the narrator of his own video plays it down with a disparaging "…whatever that is."

    I'm really not sure about this, but my impression, from the context and the sudden change in tone of voice, was that the narrator is trying to imply that the typical candidate knows so little about China as to not even know what Hokkien is. (If so, this is a strange tactic, since most members of the audience presumably don't know what Hokkien is, either.)

  9. Sili said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 4:42 pm

    As long as it isn't French.

  10. Fritinancy said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 4:47 pm

    Almost as interesting as "whatever that is" in the campaign video are the narrator's noun-izations: "The world needs new. America needs fresh." And later: "Took on the tough."

    Very consistent with trends in ad lingo (e.g., AT&T's "Rethink possible").

  11. Fresh Sawdust said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

    I doubt if even his Mandarin is that good, given that he's mispronouncing the ji in the aphorism as zhi.

    As for the "Hokkien, whatever that is" bit, that could be as much the good ol' "Are these dialects also Chinese, or not?" chestnut, as one for the non-Sinologists.

  12. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

    @Fritinancy: I'm guessing it's intended to be "The world needs new, America needs fresh, new perspectives", with "perspectives" being shared by both clauses.

  13. Mark said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

    @Henning Makholm

    Wikipedia says they redefined the Li to be exactly 1/2 Kilometer. Probably to much of a pat-phrase in his head to get marked for "translation" to American units.

  14. Alexander said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 9:09 pm


    This "ji" is not a common word anyway, so its mispronunciation couldn't really be a failure of ordinary colloquial facility. Probably just a reading error, under pressure. For all we know, Caperton learned Mandarin using GR, where "j" both where Pinyin has "zh" and where it has "j", and slipped up. Anyway, he did an all-right job with his intro comments, and deserves credit for it, I would think.

  15. Christopher Sundita said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 10:20 pm

    @kuri Past experienced has taught me that if an American speaks Tagalog exceptionally well, they were most likely a Mormon missionary. There are a couple of videos on YouTube of Mormon missionaries speaking Tagalog with near-native fluency if not native-sounding.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRJsv6xVoDM (especially Elder Van Otten, 2:25)


  16. maidhc said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 10:44 pm

    Former Australian PM Kevin Rudd is another Mandarin-speaking politician (not a Mormon though).

  17. mollymooly said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 11:41 pm

    If I were Republican HQ I would have gone for, "He speaks both Red Chinese and Free Chinese".

  18. Fresh Sawdust said,

    June 22, 2011 @ 1:13 am

    @Alexander: That character may not be particularly frequent, but given that the sound inventory in Mandarin is quite small and not particularly complex, and each character monosyllabic, I can't see what the challenge would be, for anyone claiming to be fluent, in reading out an eight-character saying, and more fool Huntsman if (but only if, given that you are hypothesizing) he annotated a speech presumably he himself had written with a transcription system he wasn't as familiar with. Then, there is the fact that the phonetic in 驥 is 異 (yi4), which to any reasonably fluent reader (I mean of just hanzi without any accompanying transcription, not that I think Huntsman attempted that!) suggest a reading closer to ji than zhi anyhow.

  19. J Lee said,

    June 22, 2011 @ 2:57 am

    — I doubt we'll get to hear any Hokkien from Huntsman, given that the narrator of his own video plays it down with a disparaging "…whatever that is." —

    …given that it would be utterly pointless exhibitionism?
    it's not even common knowledge that 'chinese' is a family/sprachbund. those aware probably know only of cantonese. i am surprised a guy who wrote On Language so utterly misinterpreted a benign remark.

    the suggestion that average americans or 'xenophobic republicans' or other boogeymen will be contemptuous or mistrustful of someone for knowing a critical need language (as a dedicated youth member of a distinguished church compared to kerry's familial reasons for maintaining a geopolitically worthless language) is pretty insulting. on the other hand when obama ridiculously flaps his Rs for pweirto rico, which americans even originally spelled porto rico, it's his inimitable charisma.

  20. Jimbino said,

    June 22, 2011 @ 9:17 am

    I've been commenting on the lack of competency in STEM and economics among our leaders in SCOTUS, POTUS and COTUS. Of our recent presidents, only Carter and Hoover were competent and on SCOTUS, only Breyer has shown any sophistication.

    It seems that Teddy Roosevelt was fluent in French, Hoover supposedly in Chinese. GWB claimed to speak Spanish but could hardly speak English. I understand that Van Buren's first language was Dutch. In general, it seems that we are led by monolingual, scientifically incompetent English, history and government majors.

    I would be curious to know which of our current and recent federal officials have demonstrated mastery of foreign languages.

  21. David Marjanović said,

    June 22, 2011 @ 9:20 am

    "Distinguished church"? I must say, the American habit of saying "my religion is better than yours" in public never ceases to amaze me.

    "Geopolitically worthless language"? In the More or Less Democratic Republic of Congo, even the child soldiers are fluent in French, while… English… forget it.

    Finally, there may not be many, but there are xenophobic Republicans who will react exactly as feared. It's because they don't know that anything other than English is "a critical need language".

    I do agree that "whatever that is" was just a harmless self-deprecating joke.

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 22, 2011 @ 11:10 am

    Maybe I'm misreading J Lee (whose aversion to capital letters makes it difficult for me to figure out whether he's a native AmEng speaker or not), but "distinguished church" is really not what an AmEng speaker would typically say about his *own* denomination. It is the sort of thing you would say about someone else's denomination when being elaborately polite, perhaps especially if it was a denomination you had serious disagreements with theologically. (UK politicians and barristers typically don't need to say "the distinguished gentleman" or "my learned friend" about colleagues they're in substantive agreement with, do they?)

    I agree that Sen. Kerry's language skills are not entirely geopolitically useless and regret that Pres. Obama has failed to make good use of his talents by appointing him, say Ambassador to Gabon. That said, the political valence of his language skills for both his supporters and adversaries was not particularly focused on the value he could bring to sorting out crises in Francophone Africa, but more on the idea of "European = sophisticated and French = most sophisticated" which is either a bug or a feature depending on where you stand in U.S. culture/politics. (Seriously, if for some random personal/family reason he'd spoken excellent Slovak, no one would have gotten political mileage — or at least not the same genre of political mileage — out of making fun of him for that.) It remains to be seen whether the criminal charges now pending against M. Strauss-Kahn (with the alleged victim being from Francophone Africa, just for an interesting twist) will affect the Francophilia of the Sophisticated-American demographic.

  23. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 22, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

    Another interesting Huntsman-languge point: a description on the campaign website of the candidate's seven children (with the byline of the candidate's wife, although I wouldn't be totally shocked if a speechwriter had been involved) describes the youngest daughter Asha as the "family's best Mandarin speaker." Meaning not only better than her father the missionary-turned-ambassador, but better than her older sister Gracie, who was born in China to Chinese birth parents. (Asha was, by contrast, adopted from an orphanage in Gujarat.) It's actually plausible when you consider the relative ages, but a nice reminder of the not-infrequently overlooked fact that competence in a particular language is not transmitted genetically.

  24. Damon said,

    June 22, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

    "We now face the fascinating prospect of having two major presidential candidates who can speak Asian languages with some degree of proficiency."

    Unfortunately I'd say the odds are tilted slightly against Mr. Huntsman ever becoming a presidential candidate.

  25. Kevin Lin said,

    June 23, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

    Huntsman is actually fluent in Chinese. See the video here:

  26. bryan said,

    June 26, 2011 @ 6:11 pm

    三 里 = 1 mile = 1.609344 kilometers

    一 里 = 1 li = 1/3 of a mile [this constant is on most Chinese people's minds, not the one used in China, where 一 里 = 500 km! ] = 0.536344 km = a little more than half a km = 1 / 1.641109127 of a km

    千 里 = 1000 li = 333 1/3 miles = about 536.448 km or 536 and 3.136200717 / 7 of a km is actually MORE than 500 km, not "about 500 km". 36.448 km more to be exact.

  27. Wamut said,

    June 27, 2011 @ 5:36 pm

    Beware the Chinese-speaking politician! As someone mentioned above, our former Australian PM Kevin Rudd was a fluent Mandarin speaker. Linguists and language teachers, like Ben Zimmer here, thought it was a ray of hope for greater acceptance and promotion of languages other than English. In reality, people on the far right used it to accuse him of being in cahoots with China and it didn't really get him anywhere. He was sacked by his own party and lost the leadership before his first term was up.

    If America suffers from the same monolingual mindset that Australia does, then I wouldn't start celebrating a new era of language acceptance just yet. Interesting to read above that there's already politician in the White House, Mitt Romney, who keeps his LOTE on the DL. I fear that would be more common than not for bilingual/multilingual politicians?

    Here's my rant on fully (sic) blog that touched on the issue…. http://blogs.crikey.com.au/fullysic/2011/03/31/migrants-black-people-and-other-bilingual-freaks/

  28. Eugene Oh said,

    July 1, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

    to the doubters of where he learnt mandarin: it's not true that he must have learnt it on the mainland just because of his accent. taiwan's standard language since 1949 has always been the mandarin of the northerners, i.e. the beijing accent. it wasn't until a few years ago that the government in taipei relaxed the media and language law that permitted local varieties of mandarin or other chinese languages in "official" media such as the news or education. if, as huntsman says in the video, he lived in taiwan 20 years ago, and learnt mandarin via proper "lessons", the beijing accent is what he would have picked up.

  29. Outis said,

    August 31, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

    Ok this is way past the good-thru date. But I just want to point out that Cao Cao was _not_ the first post-Han emperor of the Three Kingdoms. He was created a king/prince (Wang) only very late in his life, and his imperial title was postumously given by his son.

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