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posted by n1 on Friday October 24 2014, @02:41AM   Printer-friendly [Skip to comment(s)]
from the more-from-our-new-overlords dept.

Abby Phillip reports at the Washington Post that that Mark Zuckerberg just posted a 30-minute Q&A at Tsinghua University in Beijing in which he answered every question exclusively in Chinese - a notoriously difficult language to learn and particularly, to speak. "It isn't just Zuckerberg's linguistic acrobatics that make this a notable moment," writes Philip. "This small gesture — although some would argue that it is a huge moment — is perhaps his strongest foray into the battle for hearts and minds in China." Zuckerberg and Facebook have been aggressively courting Chinese users for years and the potential financial upside for the business. Although Beijing has mostly banned Facebook, the company signed a contract for its first ever office in China earlier this year. A Westerner speaking Mandarin in China — at any level — tends to elicit joy from average Chinese, who seem to appreciate the effort and respect they feel learning Mandarin demonstrates. So how well did Zuckerberg actually do? One Mandarin speaker rates Zuckerberg's language skills at the level of a seven year old: "It's hard not see a patronizing note in the Chinese audience's reaction to Zuckerberg's Mandarin. To borrow from Samuel Johnson's quip, he was like a dog walking on its hind legs: It wasn't done well, but it was a surprise to see it done at all."

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  • (Score: 4, Interesting) by CRCulver on Friday October 24 2014, @03:31AM

    by CRCulver (4390) on Friday October 24 2014, @03:31AM (#109468) Homepage

    Zuckerberg sounded like a seven-year-old with a mouth full of marbles? I can sympathize. I was fortunate to learn Mandarin Chinese in an intensive year-long course at Defense Language Institute while training as a Navy cryptologic linguist. With that tough regimen from some of the best language instructors in the world, most of them native Chinese, and later taking a few trips to China to beef up my skills, I was able to speak Chinese like a befuddled eleven-year-old.

    A lot of Mandarin's daunting reputation is due to the fact that it's a tonal language, and many speakers of Western languages just don't have the ear for tonal contrasts. But another, lesser-known obstacle to a good accent in Mandarin is the language's aspirated ~ unaspirated contrast. The sound represented by d in pinyin isn't the d many learners expect; it's a t without aspiration. Speakers of most Western languages are unprepared for aspiration contrasts, and it's likely that early in their Chinese course they are confronted with pinyin on the written page, and then they make the mistaken association of pinyin d, z, j with the voiced consonants in their own language.

    • (Score: 1) by CirclesInSand on Friday October 24 2014, @06:45AM

      by CirclesInSand (2899) on Friday October 24 2014, @06:45AM (#109488)

      1 year and some native exposure and you were able to speak with the skill of an 11 year old? That's pretty good.

      I know many who have taken Japanese for years at the University level, from native speakers, then spent time in Japan, and can barely hold a conversation at the level of a 3 year old.

      • (Score: 2) by CRCulver on Friday October 24 2014, @06:59AM

        by CRCulver (4390) on Friday October 24 2014, @06:59AM (#109492) Homepage

        I don't really understand how language instruction at US universities works. People seem to come out of BA programmes there with very limited speaking skills. Perhaps it is because they don't immerse themselves enough in the language, and even if they do a study abroad term they may all too easily spend much of their time in an expat bubble, much like Erasmus students.

        • (Score: 3, Interesting) by Ryuugami on Friday October 24 2014, @10:06AM

          by Ryuugami (2925) on Friday October 24 2014, @10:06AM (#109515)

          From my experience, that's normal. Unless you use a language in your everyday life, you'll improve very slowly - no amount of studying can replace actual usage (at least for most people).

          I participated in Japanese government's program for foreign students, where you spend a year at a Japanese university studying the language, and then enroll in a normal university as a regular student. One year was more than enough to be able to more-or-less fluently listen, speak, read and write Japanese at a university level. Of course, it was one year of exclusive language study, but still. Furthermore, I spent most of my off time reading manga, watching anime and listening to music, all in Japanese, and I'd say that my rate of improvement was significantly better than those who studied like we were supposed to.

          So my advice is: if you want to learn a foreign language, once you get the basics, go and watch some subtitled movies, read a comic (or a book, if you can), use it for fun. Studying is good, but playing is better :)

          --
          If a shit storm's on the horizon, it's good to know far enough ahead you can at least bring along an umbrella. - D.Weber
          • (Score: 2, Interesting) by ld a, b on Friday October 24 2014, @12:19PM

            by ld a, b (2414) on Friday October 24 2014, @12:19PM (#109535)

            I'd recommend anyone learning any language to start out by speaking and only learn the language once they can understand most things said to them. Just like children.
            Formal learning is like steroids. It is relatively easy to increase your vocabulary and grammar by studying a bit. Even in Chinese, you can read anything as long as you memorize 6000 glyphs. That's trivial.
            I can read and write Japanese. I know enough kanji and vocabulary to be well above native average, and yet every single word I learned before being proficient, I just can't pronounce it properly without making a conscious effort to avoid the shitty accent I assigned to it when I didn't know anything about the spoken language.
            With Chinese, however, I have been mostly exposed to the spoken language and I can pronounce the few words and phrases I know far closer to the way a native would.

            --
            10 little-endian boys went out to dine, a big-endian carp ate one, and then there were -246.
            • (Score: 2) by Ryuugami on Friday October 24 2014, @04:19PM

              by Ryuugami (2925) on Friday October 24 2014, @04:19PM (#109626)

              I'd recommend anyone learning any language to start out by speaking and only learn the language once they can understand most things said to them.

              I'd modify this a bit. I'd say that it's enough to get a feeling for the language, no need to actual understand it. I've been watching anime in Japanese with English subtitles for four or five years before I began to study the language, and at that point I'd say I had a vocabulary of less than a hundred words and my knowledge of grammar was as good as non-existent. But from all the "listening practice" (even without understanding what was said), I could speak and listen at a decent level about a month after I began study. The next eleven months were just refinement and reading/writing (which necessarily takes some time).

              TL;DR: From my anecdotal evidence, you don't even need to understand; you just need to listen.

              --
              If a shit storm's on the horizon, it's good to know far enough ahead you can at least bring along an umbrella. - D.Weber
  • (Score: 2) by arslan on Friday October 24 2014, @06:41AM

    by arslan (3462) on Friday October 24 2014, @06:41AM (#109487)

    To me verbal Mainland Chinese mandarin is harder to learn. I grew up in an environment where I absorbed Taiwanese, Malaysia and Singaporean Mandarin. Although each of these has its accent, the intonation of each word is more pronounce and thus is easier to identify word boundaries and then process. Mainland Chinese Mandarin is much harder in that it is the opposite where it just flows. Of all the mainland chinese I've spoken to, even the most neutral in terms of mainland accent is hard to comprehend, and vice versa.

    Their average speed is also much quicker and compounds the problem.

    • (Score: 2) by CRCulver on Friday October 24 2014, @07:10AM

      by CRCulver (4390) on Friday October 24 2014, @07:10AM (#109498) Homepage
      For those formally studying putonghua in an academic setting, the complaint is usually the opposite, that Taiwanese Mandarin or the Mandarin of southern Mainland Chinese is difficult to understand. This has a legitimate basis, as /s/ and /ʂ/ have merged in these dialects, and if one has become used to the contrast from standard putongua or the speech of northern Chinese, then the lack of it can be confusing.
  • (Score: 2) by cafebabe on Friday October 24 2014, @08:36AM

    by cafebabe (894) on Friday October 24 2014, @08:36AM (#109506) Journal

    What creepy in Mandarin?

    --
    1702845791×2
  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by mmcmonster on Friday October 24 2014, @12:01PM

    by mmcmonster (401) on Friday October 24 2014, @12:01PM (#109531)

    Let's forget who this is for a moment.

    A U.S. born American goes to China and speaks the local language, answering spontaneous questions without canned responses. He has apparently been getting ready for this interview for at least a year.

    This shows us that he's truly a geek and also how important China is to him. That and his wife is Chinese (she speaks Cantonese) should have garnered him serious points on the mainland.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 24 2014, @01:01PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 24 2014, @01:01PM (#109548)

      answering spontaneous questions without canned responses

      Are you sure about this? PR stunts are never spontaneous.

    • (Score: 0, Troll) by Ethanol-fueled on Friday October 24 2014, @04:45PM

      by Ethanol-fueled (2792) on Friday October 24 2014, @04:45PM (#109645) Homepage

      Then let him live there, and let him move his company there.

      Zuckerburg is nothing but a fifth-columnist Jew and parasite. Best wishes to him in his new homeland, he deserves it as much as it deserves him for allowing him to live there.

  • (Score: 2) by Phoenix666 on Friday October 24 2014, @01:44PM

    by Phoenix666 (552) on Friday October 24 2014, @01:44PM (#109561) Journal

    My take is different. I came to Mandarin after learning Japanese for years, and found Mandarin significantly easier. Yes, tonal differences throw you at first. The lack of an alphabet is daunting at first. But they're both consistent and have their own internal logic. Quickly you come to roll with the tones (like when you learn that when two falling-rising tones occur next to each other, the first becomes a rising tone because it's easier to say). The characters stop being incomprehensible and turn into an alphabet, albeit an alphabet with a whole lot of letters. The grammar is dead easy next to Indo-European languages with their gendered articles, and a million verb and tense conjugations and noun-adjective agreement.

    Classical Chinese is different, but you mostly encounter it in spoken Mandarin as proverbs or idioms. In other words, you don't really need it, much the same way you don't really need to know Latin proverbs ("veni, vidi, vici") to be perfectly capable in American English.

    When I hit the ground in Beijing I spoke zero, and 8 months later was a paid lecturer on modernity and epistemological change at China's equivalent of M.I.T., so I believe that Zuckerberg was able to give a decent accounting of himself.

    Part of what the communists did when they took over was to simplify the characters and standardize vocabulary to boost literacy. And I have to hand that one to them because I think it worked.

    Japanese, now, that's an entirely different ball of wax...

    --
    Washington DC delenda est.
  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 24 2014, @04:27PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 24 2014, @04:27PM (#109634)

    So he learned Mandarin. What, is this the celebrity gossip channel? You know, I think Larry Page was thinking of taking that cooking class at the community college, anyone want to hear about that?

    And for what it's worth, ich bin ein Berliner.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 25 2014, @06:57PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 25 2014, @06:57PM (#110041)

    "I'm sure those slant-eyed morons will fall for this play and I'll get even more eBitches!"