Facebook's CEO pulled off an undeniably impressive feat Wednesday in Beijing. Four years after Mark Zuckerberg announced that he would take up Mandarin in all the spare time he has while running a $200 billion-plus company, the executive sat down for a 30-minute question-and-answer session with Chinese students, with whom he spoke entirely in Mandarin.
Students in the room cheered and clapped enthusiastically as word after word tumbled out of the mouth of one of the world's richest Americans. Though it's hardly the first time, it's not every day that a foreigner makes good on a pledge to learn the notoriously difficult language.
Elsewhere in the world, the reaction was a mixture of surprise and curiosity.
So just how good is Zuckerberg's Mandarin, really?
Clearly, it's good enough to be responsive to questions about things other than the weather with native speakers for a half-hour.
Zuckerberg himself prefaced his remarks with a disclaimer. “My Chinese is very bad, but I'll try to use Chinese today,” he said, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The Washington Post initially called Zuckerberg's Mandarin "terrible," but then, upon further review, upgraded it to "mediocre."
We asked a few Chinese teachers to grade his performance. Here's what they had to say.
Chen Gao, lecturer in East Asian studies at New York University:
As a Chinese teacher, I found the 30 min Q&A very much like an OPI (oral proficiency interview) test and Mark's Chinese is somewhere between intermediate high and advanced low level. He can communicate with ease and confidence by understanding and producing narrations and descriptions in all major time frames and deal efficiently with a situation with an unexpected turn of events.
While his Chinese is heavily accented, he charmed the audience with his sense of humor and appropriate language use. What I want to tell my students is that if the CEO of a $200 billion company has time to learn the "Category IV" language, you cannot say you are too busy to practice.
Jing Tsu, professor of Chinese literature and comparative literature at Yale University:
The pronunciation takes effort to understand, but it is understandable. Some of my colleagues find his efforts charming and laudable.
Western media reaction ranged from the banal to the hysterical.
"Though Zuckerberg struggled at times to find the precise words to express himself and frequently bungled his tones, he was able to get his points across to the audience, which cheered him repeatedly," the Los Angeles Times noted. Fair enough.
Foreign Policy's Isaac Stone Fish, formerly based in Beijing, was a bit less charitable. Tell us what you really think, Isaac.
I watched part of the video with our Chinese intern, and he could not understand most of what Zuckerberg said. It was easier for me to decipher Zuckerberg's Chinese, because that's what I sounded like as a second-year student of the language while in college. (My Mandarin now is decent, though rusty; I studied for four years in college and spent roughly six years living in China. It wasn't until after I finished my second year of Mandarin that I could get a Chinese cab driver to understand me.)
"He made convincing inflections. He made jokes. He seemed totally relaxed."
So, too, did ABC News, whose headline said: "Mark Zuckerberg Puts the Rest of Us to Shame by Speaking Fluent Chinese"
The Wall Street Journal's Carlos Tejada posited that Zuckerberg might have been expecting some of the first questions and seemed prepared to answer them.
But overall, two thumbs up.
"Not too shabby at all," said Tejada, the paper's Beijing editor. "He lives ... not in China. It's hard enough to learn Chinese when you're in China. There, you have the opportunity talk to different people in different places and handle different accents. But there he's handling questions for the moderator, he's handling questions from the students."
One English-language Chinese media outlet observed a lot of this intense analysis with some degree of humor. The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post wrote up Zuckerberg's chat with this headline:
"Judging by the reaction in the US press, a reader would be forgiven for thinking this was the first time an American had spoken a foreign language," the paper wrote.
Well, okay. Let's hear from some other Chinese speakers in The Post's own newsroom.
Beijing correspondent William Wan:
His Mandarin was not great. (Basically avoided using all tones and spoke in sentence patterns/grammar as though he was speaking American English.) But for a guy studying in spare time while running a $200 billion company … gotta say was kind of impressively awesome!
Audience and engagement editor Ryan Kellet:
Zuckerberg's tones are not great, but his vocabulary is on par with a first or early second-year student studying in America. He clearly is taking it seriously, not just learning a few key phrases. I kinda love that he answered a question using a phrase like "there are three reasons ... Number 1 ... 2 ..." That rhetorically builds like it would any speech in English or Chinese.
Chinese people in China have long freaked out over white guys speaking Chinese. So not surprising. Though it should dutifully be pointed out that almost every Chinese student in China has English baked into their education, yet Americans do not have Chinese universally in our education system.
Social media editor Herman Wong:
Zuckerberg's Chinese is pretty rough, but it's coherent and he isn't shy about speaking the language, which is really the best way to learn. Fake it till you make it!