Thoughts on Mark Zuckerberg’s Mandarin Interview


nicely put

Originally posted on Adventuring Towards . . .:

Okay, so recently my internet has been going crazy over this interview that Mark Zuckerberg did at Tsinghua University in Beijing, in Chinese.  (I say “my internet” because I’m sure that there are people who have not heard about this, but when you know as many Chinese language learners as I do, it’s unavoidable.)  Reactions ranged from the clickbait headline “Of Course Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Fluent Mandarin” (courtesy of Mashable, so no surprise) to the much harsher “Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Mandarin Like a Seven-Year-Old”.  My feelings are . . . mixed.

When I first watched the video, I’m not gonna lie – I cringed a bit.  It’s probably easier for us foreign language learners to understand bad Chinese because we remember the not-so-distant past when we sounded exactly like that (“What, tones are a thing?”), but it’s also more grating because it’s like a reminder of our own imperfections…

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Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Mandarin in Bejing….kinda


Mark Zuckerberg recently busted out his nascent Mandarin skills at a Tsinghua University event in Beijing. As someone who wishes more Westerners would at least “have a go” at Mandarin, I personally think it’s pretty cool that he boldly tried to go beyond the typical “大家好” which, as the blog post below quite accurately points out, would have been more than sufficient to earn him a wild round of applause from the audience.

Surviving public speaking as a beginner is a *huge* barrier to success for adult learners, and a big reason many people never start. As part of his motivation is tied to speaking with his mother in law, I’m sure this won’t be the end of the “Mark Zuckerberg speaks Mandarin” story— I’ll look forward to seeing where he takes this in the next few years. Kudos!

“In summary, for such an influential figure to step out and have a go at speaking the world’s most spoken (by number of native speakers) language, in one of the world’s most influential countries, is indeed a noteworthy occurrence, and a good piece of public relations on the part of Zuckerberg. It shows not only his outlook towards a country who still bars his company from its market, but also a great example of senior leaders accepting the fact that the world does not in fact revolve around English.”

Originally posted on The Ganbei Chronicles:

Major media outlets have recently be publicizing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent  trip to China, where he spoke at Bejing’s TsingHua university. The main reason for all the hype I will address in a moment, but first a few thoughts.

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Nybooks article: India After English?

Are the tides turning on the fortunes of English in India?  The paragraph below is an excerpt from an interesting article posted on the New York Review of Books—definitely worth a read!

A decade or more ago, the publishers of English newspapers scorned Indian language readers, assuming that, as hundreds of millions more Indians became literate, they would turn automatically into consumers of English papers. But the steady rise in literacy rates—from 64.8 percent of the population in 2001 to 73 percent in 2011—has had unexpected consequences. The new middle class is increasingly found in smaller towns, and prefers to read in its own regional language, rather than English. Meanwhile, major media houses have discovered that English readership is declining or stagnant, and that advertising rates in English papers cannot be pushed much higher. Along with an influx of politicians from non-elite backgrounds and the growing importance of regional and state-level politics, these developments have begun to challenge the assumption that English is the default medium of Indian public life. By putting more energy into regional languages, said Ravi Dhariwal, the chief executive of Bennett Coleman, “We’re just adapting to the way our country is changing.”

Edmonton Confucius Institute: The First Five Years

This is a wonderful video that captures the story behind the Confucius Institute here in my city.  I’ve said it in other posts, but after living in China for a few years, my earnest study of Mandarin didn’t really begin until I returned to Canada; as part of that process, I first got in touch with the CIE about four years ago to ask about participating in the HSK proficiency tests.

The staff have always been exceptionally warm and supportive—in addition to registering for the tests and making use of their fantastic library, I’ve also had the pleasure of participating in some of their public events.


Talking about big numbers in Chinese and English

I put the chart below together for someone I know who, despite having a strong grasp of English, often seems to get tripped up when talking about large numbers. It may seem like a trivial topic but this particular person works in a financial institution in a sales capacity…… I’m sure you can understand how a slip of the tongue in this kind of context might make someone lose confidence in their abilities.

I figured I could put something together that they could put beside their desk and refer to in a pinch– maybe it will work for you?  Feel free to print/cut it out.

big numbers

As it happens, this can be an issue for English speakers learning Chinese as well— the primary challenge being that English and Chinese (this is actually true of Japanese as well), put breaks at different points in large numbers. While English leaves things in clusters of three digits (thousands, millions, billions, trillions), Chinese groups the digits in clusters of four (i.e. units of 10,000: 万,亿,兆).

It’s easy to understand the differences in your head, but numbers are such a familiar beast that we say things like “75 million” without really having to think about it very much.  The trouble comes when we have to quickly refer to a number like that in Chinese, you have to rearrange your approach and translate the number into a multiplier of 10,000: “seven thousand, five-hundred ‘wan'” (一千五百万).

Your homework: anytime you see a sign advertising the next lotto Jackpot on a billboard or sign, say that number to yourself in the language you’re studying.

Another strategy I might suggest: memorize the translations of common numbers in tricky ranges (for Mandarin, my two peg numbers are: the approx. population of China–1.3 billion is thirteen yi, 十三亿–and the approx. population of Canada–35 million is 3500 wan, 三千五百万.  If I’m really in a pinch, I just have to think about my nearest peg number, visualize the number I’m trying to vocalize, and then I can get myself back on track.

To give an example, if I needed to say 300 billion (not a number I say very often in Chinese, I might say to myself “ok, China’s population is 13 yi, so let’s take 10 yi as a billion and go from there”.  This method may sound contrived, but when these numbers start playing tricks on your head, it’s better to have some reliable numbers in your head from which you can do some simple math (i.e. 300 x 10 yi is 3000 yi= 三千亿).  This will only work if you have complete confidence in your memory of your peg numbers.

I added the bottom line in the chart because I keep meaning to memorize the complicated of Chinese so-called “banking characters” that you might find on a cashier’s cheque, etc. in China.  I know how to read them but I never seem to get around to practicing how to write them.  Maybe I should just practice writing myself ridiculously large cheques, like my homework is some sort of positive visualization exercise……

Anyway– I had a teacher once comment that things like music/poetry and math (he also talked about wordplay) were some of the hardest skills to really grasp and ‘flow’ in another language.  Here, I’m not thinking of simply reading numbers, but following the logic of someone making a spirited and quick-tempo cycle of debate/rebuttal of a series of calculations— could you keep up?

Anyway—I try not to beat myself up about the fact that full numerical fluency isn’t quite within my grasp. It’s also a good reminder not to be too quick to judge when I hear someone tripping over numbers in English.

Chinese Reggae Band 中国的雷鬼乐队–龙神道 Long Shen Dao

When I first started studying Chinese, I don’t think I would have even had enough imagination to ask if a Chinese reggae band existed; I mean really— Chinese reggae?  As it happens, I just happened to stumble upon one such band the other day—they’re called Long Shen Dao (龙神道 lóng shén dào).

The whole thing was actually quite accidental—-I was looking for a playlist of Chinese music to play while I was doing some work and one of the youtube thumbnails popped out at me. After checking out the video (not this one), I just copied the name of the band (from the title of the video) and pasted it into the youtube search box and–voila–the song below was in the results.

If you generally like reggae, I think you’ll have to agree that they’ve got a really good handle on the sounds of classic reggae. One interesting touch is that they use a zither (古筝 gǔzhēng) in most of their songs. Definitely worth a listen.

I think many folks would find the meeting of Chinese and Caribbean culture interesting and potentially intriguing; however, as a Canadian of mixed Welsh-Scottish/West-Indian origin, reggae (and to a greater extent, calypso) was what my dad and his friends would play at house parties when I was little.  It was good fun to have such a ‘home culture’ connection moment with this unique corner of the Chinese music scene.  The real kicker will be when I play this song for my dad.

For the record, reggae in Chinese is 雷鬼 (léi guǐ).

If you like the song, the full album is called “Tai Chi Reggae: 拥抱” and you can listen to the whole thing on youtube.