THE BLOG
11/19/2014 04:01 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2015

Zuckerberg's Mandarin From a Chine IV student

Unless you haven't glanced at the Internet, you should all know about Mark Zuckerberg and his press conference in Shanghai. For those of you who don't know, on Wednesday, October 21, Mark Zuckerberg took part in a Q&A in Shanghai, and to everyone's surprise he began speaking Chinese. Multiple news sources picked up the story unbelievably fast, but unfortunately took it a little too far. Many titles varied from Buzzfeed's "Out of nowhere, Mark Zuckerberg now speaks Mandarin," to CNN's "Like, OMG!! Zuck speaks Mandarin?!!" Many articles praised Zuckerberg for his fluency in the extremely tough language, but I have a slightly different opinion. I've been studying Chinese since 3rd grade, and I'm now in Chinese 4. I am also nowhere near fluent, but I've been studying the grammar, tones and speech of the language for a while now. Here are a few observations I've made about the 30-minute interview.

Overall Zuckerberg 知道很多中文生词 (knows many Chinese words) and knows how to put them in the right places most of the time. I don't know how well he can write, but he can definitely pass with just speaking. The entire crowd knew what he was saying, and he knew what the interviewer's questions were. As a student who can survive with Chinese, I was pleasantly surprised when I didn't need a transcript of what Zuckerberg had said. The interviewer was also very nice! 他帮马克了,他说得很慢所以马克懂他说什么了。(He helped Mark, he spoke very slowly so Mark could understand what he said.) In the end, Mark Zuckerberg's performance was not without its flaws.

His tones were, um, how should I put this? They were bad. Sorry that's the truth. In Chinese, tones play a HUGE role in how to speak correctly. Zuckerberg was fine in that he stuck to using simple constructions and words, but an example of tones making a difference is shi. Here's a short list of characters that are all pronounced "shi": 十 (10), 事 (measure word for things in general), 是 ("is" construction), 时 (when), 师 (part of the word 老师, meaning teacher) and 史 (history). Each of these sound like "shi," but with different tones, which change how it's meant to be pronounced.

Other than Mark's tones, he did an outstanding job. Considering he runs the 22nd largest company in the world, he did much better than anyone had expected. The Chinese language is extremely intricate and difficult. There are more than enough grammar structures that all completely change how a sentence can be interpreted. What shocks me is how he has any time at all to learn Chinese. In the interview he explained that his wife is Chinese, and last year, after he proposed to her, he wanted to tell her Grandmother, who only spoke Mandarin, in Chinese that they were getting married. I am assuming that Mark is focusing on the actual speech aspect of the language, and possibly not even touching the writing.

Regardless, he did an outstanding job and shocked everyone in the room, and on the Internet with his understanding and skill with the language. I believe he also learned, and continues to practice Chinese because there's without a doubt a huge amount of respect that is immediately gained when you go to a foreign country for a Q&A and arrive speaking the native language. By learning Chinese, Zuckerberg showed Chinese companies that he cares about their culture and language, which puts him in a great place for talking to other business CEOs. Whether or not Mark Zuckerberg learned Chinese for business or family, he proved to the world that he is an extremely versatile business opponent and is willing to take a risk that could tarnish his public image terribly. I applaud Mark's interview and sticking with Chinese the whole time, all he's got to do now is just work on some of those tones.