Will Mark Zuckerberg Inspire The Next Generation To Learn Chinese?

Glenn Leibowitz

Oct 24 2014

Learning a new language. From scratch, no less, is quite a challenge for the average person. The main Chinese languages are no exception. Mark makes it look so easy, too. He has the charisma needed to help engage the audience, who seem to be embracing him—even with his imperfections in pronunciation. Impressive! Well done, Mark!

I’ve always been of the ilk that if you’re visiting someone’s home, you ought to at least learn their culture—even just a bit of it; it will go a long way, and it will resonate really well with your hosts. During my university studies in Business Management, I learned a lot in International Marketing courses. I have traveled extensively, as a result, and I learned and now appreciate even more, the mosaic society made of of different cultures, languages, beliefs, etc., in which we live.

I agree with the author, Glenn Leibowitz, that Chinese languages such as Mandarin and Cantonese, among others, will become prevalent languages in western cultures, especially in business, where China has made leaps and bounds in terms of economic growth—to the point where they are now a global superpower. Having said that, and the value I put toward learning, I just may give it—Mandarin—a shot, myself. At least conversationally. Time will tell. —Nicholas Di Cuia

I just watched a video clip of Mark Zuckerberg speaking Mandarin Chinese yesterday at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University (check it out at the bottom of this post).

First of all, kudos to Mark for having the courage to get up in front of a crowd of some of the smartest students in China and speak Mandarin!

Mangled pronunciation and grammar aside, he still managed to get his message across fairly well (for some translated snippets of what he said, check out this roundup by Quartz). He’s obviously been clocking some serious hours in this language.

Watching Mark speak Mandarin, and reading the wave of comments on Youtube and in the social mediasphere, makes me wonder what kind of impact he will have on students around the world who are currently studying it, those that are contemplating taking a course, or perhaps the ones that haven’t quite yet considered learning it.

It also reminds me of the reasons why I decided to study Chinese nearly 30 years ago.

Why did I decide to learn Chinese?

When I began studying Chinese at a nine-week summer immersion program at Cornell back in the summer of 1987, the Chinese economy hadn’t registered on the global economic radar screen, and Mandarin wasn’t in vogue like it is now.

Today, China is a staple of the daily news cycle, and tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of students, are studying Mandarin around the world. And it’s not just a language for college students or high schoolers: many schools offer it at very early grade levels now.

I wish I could say I possessed special foresight in deciding to study a language that would become so relevant to the world economy some day, or provide another reason that would make my decision look like an even wiser choice than it was at the time.

The real reasons are simpler and more tied to my personal interests at the time. I had never really known any Chinese students growing up in South Florida. Going to Cornell opened my eyes to the world beyond that sunny enclave, and gave me the chance to make friends with students from a very different cultural background.

I was a language buff, and having enjoyed studying Spanish and French, I wanted to try my hand at another, perhaps “more challenging” language.

I was also inspired by a profile that was published in The New Yorker of the lawyer and NYU Professor Jerome Alan Cohen. Here was someone who was actively using his Chinese language skills to provide legal advice to companies trying to tackle this largely unknown and challenging market that was just beginning to open its doors to the rest of the world. He was (and remains today) an influential human rights activist. Impressive. I wanted to be like Professor Cohen, I thought.

And I fell in love with Chinese history, literature, philosophy, and, of course, the food!

So that’s my own story of how I got started with Mandarin. Today, I use Chinese as frequently as I do English. It’s the lingua franca of my job as communications director for a management consulting firm in China. It’s also part of the linguistic mashup we speak at home with our kids.

Some advice for students of Chinese

Which brings me to Mark Zuckerberg’s talk at Tsinghua. What will students watching this video think? Will it ignite their passion for studying Mandarin? Will it inspire them to continue their studies, and encourage them to master the language someday?

As someone who has taken the journey of learning this language — and been rewarded in more ways than I can share in this brief post — here are a few thoughts that current and future students might want to consider:

Don’t be afraid to use it

If Mark Zuckerberg has the guts to get up in front of hundreds of smart Tsinghua students (and already hundreds of thousands of Youtube viewers) and try out his less-than-perfect Chinese, you can too! Speak, speak, and speak some more. Don’t be shy. Don’t be embarrassed. Just speak up and speak out. Go to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, anywhere you will be “forced” to speak to get around town. Get a job in a Chinese or Taiwanese company where you will have to learn the language no matter what. That’s what I did, and my proficiency and, eventually, fluency in the language, skyrocketed after a couple of years working in a local company (and, later, a multinational company where everyone spoke Chinese).

Once you start, don’t stop

Learning Mandarin, or any other foreign language for that matter, is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes a lot of time to go from being able to order a bowl of noodles to being able to present your thoughts coherently (and with accurate grammar and pronunciation) on more complex subjects. Ordering noodles in Chinese is a lot of fun and very practical, but push yourself to get to the next level, and then the next, so you can make it a language you feel confident using to speak about more sophisticated topics.

Learn it because you enjoy it

The good news is yes, there are jobs available for those of you willing to master Mandarin. To paraphrase a song that was popular when I was studying Chinese: “the future’s so bright, you’ve gotta wear shades.” (check out the Youtube clip at the end of this post!) Mandarin has “arrived”, and is now widely considered a relevant language for the global economy, and one that is proving to be a very useful tool for securing a job today and in the future. But please don’t just study it for the chance to burnish your resume or find work. You’ll have a lot more staying power and get a lot more out of studying the language if you truly enjoy doing so. Mandarin is a challenging but immensely fun language to learn, so enjoy the ride!

Here’s Mark Zuckerberg chatting in Mandarin at Tsinghua:


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