Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Mandarin

Confucius said the superior man puts all his energy into everything he does…

On Wednesday, armed only with his favourite grey T-shirt and goofy smile, Mark Zuckerberg held court in one of China s most prestigious universities for half an hour. In Mandarin.

So this son of a New York dentist gets a gold star or a red flower, as they are called in China for not only mastering the internet by the age of 30 but also somehow finding time to learn the world s most difficult language.

“Hello everyone,” he said, to whoops of excitement from the audience (who, being elite business students could all speak English). “There are three reasons I decided to learn Chinese. The first, my wife is Chinese. Her grandmother can only speak Chinese. When I told her in Chinese I was going to marry Priscilla, she was very shocked. Then I want to study Chinese culture. The third: Chinese is hard and I like a challenge!”

After he posted a video, there were also swoons of envy across the world. Speaking Mandarin, with the assumption that it bring the keys to the new global superpower, is now such a prized social goal that Mark Zuckerbergwas instantly labelled a genius for his Chinese chitchat.

Plenty of other tycoons, politicians and sycophants arrive in Beijing claiming to be beavering away at Chinese, but I have never seen anyone attempt more than a few polite interchanges before reverting to English. George Osborne, the Cabinet s leading Sinophile, only got as far as a “hello” on his most recent visit. Zuckerberg was out of his comfort zone, but he just kept going.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

So how good was Zuckerberg s Chinese? It was good enough to wow the world, but in truth, four years of studying has brought him only to base camp. Mandarin still rises up before him, a mountain that most adult learners will climb for ever, with no peak to reach. I studied Chinese every morning for two hours for the first four years of my time here, but neglected my homework and have recently been overtaken by my three-and-a-half year-old son, who babbles away cheerfully to everyone he meets.

One of my American colleagues wrote that Zuckerberg s pronunciation was as if he had a “mouthful of marbles”. That is fine in French, where you can just about rub by with a wonky accent, but in China it is fatal. One slip of your tones and all meaning is lost. Zuckerberg was trying to say “China”, but it came out sounding like “Middle Kiss”.

Still, it is not just foreigners who find Chinese tricky. In September, Li Weihong, the director of China s State Language Commission, said about a third of China s population, roughly 400 million people, cannot speak Mandarin either, preferring their local dialects. And of the 900 million people who can speak Mandarin, only 10 per cent speak it “fluently”, he said.

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