Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and CEO of Facebook, did something remarkable at Tsinghua University this week. He had a 30-minute Q&A with faculty and students, and most of it was in passable Mandarin (the video was posted on Facebook, unfortunately I can’t embed it here). His example raises the question of why other foreign expats — including high-profile CEOs such as Rupert Murdoch – can’t speak Mandarin.
I learned Mandarin as a young adult, living in Taiwan and taking classes for about 10 hours per week. It took about 6 months to get to the level of vocabulary that Mark is using, and another 6 months to get to the point where I could handle a job interview.
Mandarin syntax is surprisingly easy, with no articles or weird things like irregular verbs or messy conjugations. The tones throw people off, and the written characters are extremely difficult to learn (for Westerners; Japanese, who have exposure to Chinese characters, do quite well at reading and writing). Fortunately, there is a Romanization/phonetic system called pinyin that makes it quite easy to get started with pronunciation and tones.
Yes, Mark is speaking with a very heavy accent and needs to work on his tones. But the fact that Mark was able to get to this level without living in China (he says he’s only visited 4 times, although it sounds like he’s able to practice with family members, including his wife’s paternal grandmother) is very impressive. According to the LA Times, he started learning Mandarin about five years ago:
Several news accounts at the time said he took morning lessons at his kitchen table with a tutor. Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan, whom he met at Harvard University and married in 2012, grew up in the United States as the daughter of immigrants and spoke Cantonese at home.
I think many Chinese citizens would be right to ask, if the busy CEO of a major American company who seldom visits China can learn Mandarin, why do many foreign businesspeople who have lived in China for years fail to learn the language?
Case in point: Rupert Murdoch. He was married to a Chinese woman for years, owns (or owned) a house in Beijing, and had significant business interests in China. Yet he did not learn how to speak Mandarin, according to his ex-wife, Wendi Deng.
For that matter, there are millions of foreign expats living in other countries who never bother to learn the language, despite having opportunities to take classes (or study with a tutor) and practice every day with their colleagues, neighbors, and shopkeepers.
Certainly, there are circumstances which may make study difficult. The ones that I heard a lot when I lived in Taiwan were, “I am only stationed here for a few years” or “I don’t have time.” However, practically anyone can make the effort to hire a private tutor for a few hours per week. And even if you are only in-country for two or three years, why wouldn’t you want to make a real effort to learn at least basic conversation, to better communicate with the people around you, including employees, partners, local officials, etc.?