On October 22nd, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and co-founder of the social-networking website Facebook, posted a video of himself addressing an audience in Mandarin Chinese at the Tsinghua University in Beijing, much to their delight and absolute surprise. He even successfully conducted and completed a question-and-answer session in his new language.

 Zuckerberg has been both praised and criticised for his decision to communicate in Mandarin Chinese. Critics found that his grasp of the grammar and pronunciation, among other things, left a lot to be desired. One major voice of dissent is Isaac Stone Fish, “China expert” and second language learner of Mandarin, who maintained in his reaction to the speech that Zuckerberg’s level of Mandarin Chinese was comparable to that of a seven-year-old Mandarin-speaking child. And yet, it can’t be denied Zuckerberg’s 30-minute speech is, to a certain degree, rather impressive.

It’s a considerable accomplishment for someone whose first language is not Mandarin to address an audience for 30 minutes in Mandarin Chinese and Zuckerberg prepared extensively for the occasion by studying Mandarin Chinese every day for a year. It is entirely probable that the interview at Tsinghua University had been carefully rehearsed beforehand, but that does not detract from the admirable feat of clearly learning and absorbing the important aspects (basics) of the language.

Mandarin Chinese is a complicated language for Westerners to learn. The difficulty lies in the structure and the fundamentals of the language, which strongly differ from those of Western languages. In Mandarin the pitch pattern of a word – tone and intonation – determine its meaning. A word articulated in a high level tone changes in meaning when spoken with a rising tone. This is difficult to learn for those whose first language is not Mandarin Chinese because the language requires an entirely different approach. The fact Zuckerberg hasn’t perfected the language after just a single year of study is hardly surprising.

Mandarin Chinese is not only difficult for Westerners; it is a hard language in absolute terms. And yet, it is becoming increasingly popular as a second language. Mandarin Chinese is currently spoken by roughly 100 million non-Mandarins. The total number of Mandarin speakers is estimated at 1,200,000,000 – making it the most widely spoken language in the world.

Mandarin is a tonal language, consisting of four (or, as some believe, five) tones.

-High level tone – Mā

-Rising tone – Má

-Falling tone – Mà

-Falling-Rising tone – Mǎ

– (Neutral tone – Ma)

Each tone has a distinctive pitch and will give a word its meaning, whereby the essence of the spoken word strongly differs with that of Western languages.

Zuckerberg demonstrates with his speech that language barriers aren’t insurmountable. With practice and dedication it’s possible to make yourself understood in undoubtedly one of the most difficult languages in the world. Are you taking up the challenge of learning a new language in 2015?


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