What our reaction to Mark Zuckerberg speaking Mandarin says about us

The headlines said it all.

Hours after Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg uploaded a video of himself conducting a Q&A entirely in Mandarin (also called Putonghua) with students of Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, Wired magazine gushed “Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Mandarin, Blows Everyone’s Mind.”

Mark Zuckerberg nails a Q&A in Chinese like it’s no big deal,” said the Silicon Valley Business Journal, adding that the 30-year-old billionaire had “slayed the crowd”.

Other publications were slightly more restrained, but they shared a tone of amazement at what Quartz (a more internationalised publication) called Zuckerberg’s “broken Chinese”. A quick glance at Google News shows dozens of reports from publications around the world, on a talk that, had it been in English, would have been notable only for its sheer uninteresting-ness.

While some of this could be put down to the type of fawning common of much coverage of Silicon Valley wunderkinder, this is not the first time the English language press has collectively had a fit over someone showing the slightest hint of bilingualism.

We saw it when former US ambassador to China and failed presidential candidate Jon Huntsman displayed his own (decidedly basic) Mandarin skills. We see it whenever Bradley Cooper reminds the world that he’s a French speaker, or Mila Kunis uses her native tongue, Russian.

Born in the Soviet Union, Mila Kunis is a native Russian speaker. Photo: Wikipedia

This tone of amazement would seem hugely patronising if it were the other way round, no headlines congratulate Alibaba founder Jack Ma on his (fluent) English, despite that language being as alien to him as Mandarin is to Zuckerberg.

Even today, primarily English-speaking countries, particularly the US and the UK, remain fiercely monolingual. In 2010, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reported that only 18 per cent of Americans spoke a language other than English, while 53 per cent of Europeans were bilingual.

Meanwhile, around 57 per cent of British teenagers do not study a foreign language at GCSE level. Three quarters of UK adults cannot hold a conversation in a foreign language, according to research done by the British Council.

Even when statistics on multilingualism improve, the root is usually greater migration than education: Spanish is the second most spoken language in the US.

An English classroom in China. Photo: SCMP

Children in China begin learning English at age 10, many start far earlier. Of course, there are many practical reasons for learning English, a truer lingua franca than the bastardised Latin that gave rise to that term ever was. But focusing on the practicalities and reasoning that all foreigners “speak English anyway” ignores the sheer pleasure of learning another tongue; the doors of culture, understanding and friendship that doing so opens.

Mark Zuckerberg should be commended for taking the time to learn another language, but we should worry when his is an uncommon goal.

Like what you read? Give James Griffiths a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.