Kirsten Gillibrand's Mandarin

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A couple of weeks ago, I was all ready to post on Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg's polyglotism and how to pronounce his name, but other things got in the way.  So I leave it to Language Log readers to comment on those matters if they wish.  Now I must seize the day and write about the current excitement over Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand greeting a VOA reporter in Mandarin.  You can see and hear it for yourself in the tweet copied above.  Short though it be, there's enough for us to get a pretty good idea of the quality of her Mandarin.

Let me preface my remarks by saying that I don't mean to belittle Sen. Gillibrand's Mandarin, because it is really pretty good for a non-native, and parts of it are excellent.  Moreover, she is a fellow Dartmouth alum, so I'm actually quite proud of her for learning Mandarin and speaking it so well.  On the other hand, I'm going to analyze what she says in the VOA tweet rather critically to show what sorts of things we should be paying attention to when we hear a foreigner speaking a second language.

Here's what I hear the Senator say:

nǐ hǎo ma?

hǎo bù hǎo?

wǒ… wǒ de Zhōngwén de míngzi shì Lù Tiānnà



How are you? // All right? / OK?

My… my Chinese name is Lu Tianna.

She sounds like a talking automaton.

I wish to reiterate that the Senator's Mandarin (what we hear of it here) is not bad, in fact pretty good.  The tones are correct, but not natural.

Here are some finer points I would make:

1. Chinese don't greet each other with "你好吗".  See here.

2. The second 的 is unidiomatic.

3. The fourth tone on 是 is overemphasized; ditto for 娜.

As one of the commenters to the Twitter thread said, "One thing I’ve noticed about Mandarin is Americans really hit the tones hard, whereas we Africans speak it in our native accent."

Further comments from native speakers:

I. (M.A. in humanities)

Her Mandarin is pretty good indeed and her pronunciation of every single character is correct, although the tones are not natural enough. Here are my thoughts:

1. Greeting with "你好嗎?" is not very common, especially not in front of more than one person. It sounds like a response from one specific person is expected. In this circumstance, I think "你們好" or "大家好" would be better than greeting in the interrogative. Otherwise, a pause should be made after saying "你好嗎" so that it sounds more like a greeting.

2. I agree that "好不好?" is more like "All right?". Even if people could interpret it as "How are you?" according to the context, it sounds like she is asking for an answer. "好不好" here is completely redundant and unidiomatic.

3. As a result, someone (I can tell he is a native speaker of Mandarin) said "我很好" as a response to her (between 0:02~0:03 in the short video), after which she turned to him. However, this conversation sounds a little bit weird because it is not the common way for Chinese to greet each other.

4. As a result, she stammered a bit when saying ”我…我的中文名字是,陸天娜“ because of the unexpected interruption of his response.

5. The fourth tone on "是" is overemphasized and the following pause before introducing her name is a little bit long. It then sounds like a child proudly making a self-introduction :D

In all, I think her Mandarin is quite good (in fact, I think her accent is even better than some topolect speakers when speaking Mandarin), although some improvements could be made.

II. (M.A. in humanitites)

I think her Chinese is really good. I can understand her words easily. Her pronunciation is accurate. But it is still easy to tell that she is not a native speaker. Because her tone is a little rigid.

As for the contents of her speech, I totally agree with you that "好不好" is not very appropriate here. Generally, I use “好不好” to ask for others agreement. For example, "我们去吃午饭,好不好?" If she changes it into "你好不好?", I think it is better.

III. (professional Mandarin instructor with long experience)

You're absolutely right. The 好不好 there was odd. I think, as a non-native speaker, her tones were pretty good, especially her fourth tone. Her 是, 陆 and 娜 were all quite accurate in terms of pitch.

I would say her problems were mostly in her grammar/usage. The 好不好 there was unnecessary. 好不好 is usually used as a tag question, meaning "is that ok?" Also, The second 的 in 我的中文的名字是陆天娜 was also not needed, though it was not a serious problem.

From this short video, I would guess her Chinese pronunciation is not bad, but her grammar probably is just okay.

IV. (M.A. in humanities)

Yes, 好不好 is not very proper in the context, and she is not really speaking a lot in Chinese. Moreover, not many videos of her speaking Chinese can be found online. But I'm quite satisfied with her pronunciation, as most of non-native speakers can't pronounce in the right way. Very few people can speak Chinese as perfect as you do! So I guess more lenience should be given to most Americans who are interested in studying Chinese!

V. (M.A. in humanities)

Yes I think her Mandarin is pretty good, and I agree with the points you made. One more thing I would stress is the second sentence — 好不好. I don’t get its meaning in this context.

I have heard a lot foreigners who learn Chinese greeting people with “你好吗”. It sounds a little bit weird, but Chinese could get what they mean. I think it is the way what they were taught when they first learned Chinese, just like for many Chinese who merely learn English for school, the only reply they have for “How are you” is “ I’m fine, thank you, and you?”

VI. (M.A. in humanities)

I agree with the three points you made. Generally I think her Chinese is pretty good. Especially the “好不好”. If I only listen to the “好不好” phrase without seeing the video or seeing her, I wouldn’t know it’s a foreigner speaking Chinese. She doesn’t have a very strong foreigner accent which could be very hard to get rid of. Also she says Chinese words pretty clearly. It’s only a few phrases and one sentence, so I don’t know whether she practiced a lot before or she was only sharing a little due to the time limits. Overall I think her Chinese (speaking) is pretty good. She looks very happy and confident about her Chinese too.

We do have one other Twitter video of Senator Gillibrand speaking Mandarin, and it's embedded in this article:

"Kirsten Gillibrand Speaks Mandarin, But All Anyone Can Talk About Is Mayor Pete", Natalie Gontcharova, REFINERY29 (4/8/19):

In this clip, she begins exactly the way she did in the VOA clip above:

nǐ hǎo ma?

hǎo bù hǎo?



How are you? // All right? / OK?

Then the person whom she greeted asks her, "Can you still speak [it, i.e., Mandarin]".  Whereupon her command of the language completely breaks down.  She did not "pass… with flying colors", as the REFINERY29 reporter intimates.




  1. Victor Mair said,

    April 9, 2019 @ 8:52 pm

    VII. (M.A. in humanities)

    I agree with your points.

    First, in Chinese, we will not say 你好吗 when greeting people.

    Second, 好不好 is weird here. It is more like a continuous question of 你好吗. For example, 你好吗?你到底好不好?Otherwise, like what you have said, it is inappropriate. But Chinese people will also not ask 你到底好不好. So it does not make sense.

    Third, Chinese people will never emphasize 中文名字. We say 我叫 or 我是. If we want to emphasize Chinese name, we will also not say 中文名字. It is more common to say 中文名(儿).

    I would say, her pronunciation is pretty good but her way of speaking Chinese is unnatural and textbook.

  2. Ross F said,

    April 9, 2019 @ 10:03 pm

    When asked by the moderator Erin Burnett to say something in Mandarin, Gillibrand said the same thing (你好吗 …我的中文的名字是陸天娜) at the start of the 9-April townhall broadcast on CNN at 2200hrs Eastern.

    Erin Burnett replied with excitement that she had a native speaker in the control room who told her into the earpiece how great Gillbrand's accent is.

    Two semesters of Mandarin decades ago does not make for someone who can discuss substantive issues in Mandarin. Seems like she can say her name and exchange pleasantries, though subject to the shortcomings identified above by the native speakers and other experts.

    Same thing happened when Amb. Huntsman ran for president in 2011, he says one sentence in Mandarin and people get excited:

    (this is after he served as ambassador and was able to improve upon the Mandarin he learned as a young man).

  3. David Marjanović said,

    April 10, 2019 @ 4:11 am

    As one of the commenters to the Twitter thread said, "One thing I’ve noticed about Mandarin is Americans really hit the tones hard, whereas we Africans speak it in our native accent."

    Most languages in Africa have tone systems, so I'm sure that makes a large difference – even though most of them are exclusively composed of level tones without contour tones, while 3 of the 4 tones of Mandarin are contour tones.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 10, 2019 @ 6:54 am

    VIII. (Ph.D. in humanities)

    She seems a very good novice speaker to me in this short clip. I agree with you on points #1 and #3 (she stressed a bit too much on 是, understandable as a beginner, her teacher may stress her fourth tone to make her say the falling tone correctly, though not quite natural.

    好不好 is totally out of context. My suspicion is that might be a part of a dialogue she learned or maybe her teacher taught her 你好不好 as an alternative form for 你好吗?

    Not with #3 though:

    I think she rephrased once for her last sentence. “我的…我中文的名字是 LU Tianna”.
    She could say 我的中文名字是… which is totally fine, but she switched to 我中文的名字是… actually is quite a native speaker's way saying that…
    我的英文名字是 = my English name is
    我英文的名字是 = my name in English is …

  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 10, 2019 @ 7:00 am

    IX. (Ph.D. in humanities)

    I could not open the link in your email, probably because that website is blocked in China.

    你好吗 sounds strange. We would say 大家好. And I agree with you on the meaning of 好不好.

    好不好 usually implies "不太好." “梅老师,最近好不好?” means "Prof. Mair, are you all right? Is there anything wrong? You got some trouble?"
    In other cases, 好不好 sounds somewhat childish. For example, a parent would say something like "把这个玩具借给弟弟玩,好不好?" to his or her young child.

  6. Jenny Chu said,

    April 10, 2019 @ 7:02 am

    A comment from a 13-year-old native speaker: "Understandable but… I would give it a 6 out of 10. It sounds unnatural."

    Young native speakers are harsh critics indeed!

  7. Ben Zimmer said,

    April 10, 2019 @ 9:04 am

    @Ross F: For more on Jon Huntsman's knowledge of Mandarin (and Hokkien), see my post from 2011 and Victor's from 2012. I think Huntsman's Mandarin, based on a couple of years of Mormon missionary work, is probably a fair bit better than Gillibrand's.

  8. Phil H said,

    April 10, 2019 @ 10:13 pm

    I'd like to suggest to Prof Mair that publicly judging the quality of a learner's second language is not a very friendly thing to do. Everyone knows that second language learners don't speak a perfect version of the language they're learning. Language educators also know that one of the most important things they can do is give learners lots of judgment-free opportunities to practice using their new language.

    Commenting on the difference between learner Chinese and native Chinese is interesting; I thought the comment on the sounds of different Chinese learners (American vs. African(!)) was interesting. But a good/bad comment feels offputting, at a time when we really want a lot more English speakers to be learning Chinese. It's inevitable that it will happen, in social media, but modeling that "no judgment" teaching model feels to me like a valuable thing that language professionals can do.

  9. Mimi K said,

    April 11, 2019 @ 2:24 am

    Phil H, I agree it's not helpful to publicly criticize a language learner's skills. It seems there's a sadistic thrill in this exercise, and it went on and on in this case.

    But it's fair to evaluate a public figure, especially a politician, who is reported as a polyglot.

    As a politician, if you know the public is aware of your language background and it might come up in public, it would be smart to check with a native speaker and make sure you can say a few greetings properly. In a realm where people agonize over tiny details like the color and shape of ties, surely that'd be seen as a worthwhile effort.

  10. B.Ma said,

    April 11, 2019 @ 3:02 am

    @Ross F / Phil H:

    She appears to have spent half a year in China and Taiwan, which for a dedicated learner should lead to substantial progress.

    I suggest that if she is making a big song and dance about her Mandarin skills, then she is fair game for criticism/analysis, although it looks like she isn't the one bringing it up.

    I'm not sure that a few sentences of greetings are enough to analyze her actual skills. Pronunciation yes but not necessarily whether she can have a meaningful conversation.

    Regarding Mormons, I met one, a white guy from Utah, in Hong Kong who had pretty good Mandarin and Cantonese. His tones and grammar were a bit off, but you could understand him when he talked about God etc, and he didn't try to use English when he didn't know the Chinese word (which is something that my relatives tend to do, if English is their first language).

    Now when I see Mormons in the UK I think to myself that they chose the easy life.

  11. Ben Zimmer said,

    April 12, 2019 @ 9:58 am

    Here's the bit from CNN's town hall that Ross F mentioned. She sounds well-rehearsed at this point.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    April 12, 2019 @ 10:28 am

    In this CNN town hall, she says exactly the same thing she said on a couple of other occasions, but, as Ben remarks, she is well-rehearsed this time. The senator is indeed much more relaxed and natural speaking Mandarin here — but it's still word-for-word what she said before, for the exhaustive analysis of which see above.

  13. TIC said,

    April 22, 2019 @ 6:45 am

    I'm just now catching up on early-April posts and I'm glad, Dr. Mair, that you didn't in fact comment on the pronunciation of "Mayor Pete's" last name… Unless it was to say what I was thinking (and more than once shouting at talking heads on TV!) a couple of weeks ago — "Will you people *please* knock it off with the excessive analysis of, and tittering amusement over, how incredibly 'difficult' it is to pronounce this relatively simple last name!"… Sheesh!… It's three short syllables… Two of whose vowel sounds are (I think?) simple schwas… And it has only one or two silent letters… And it has no 'foreign' sounds… But, in watching TV a couple/few weeks ago, you'd think that people were being asked to pronounce the unprounounceable… (And/or that they'd never before encountered the letter 'g' representing the 'j' sound!)…

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