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How Well Does Mark Zuckerberg Speak Chinese?

Mark Zuckerberg recently made headlines by speaking Mandarin during a half hour Q&A at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He started with a disclaimer that “my Chinese is terrible” but after an enthusiastic response from the audience he continued, saying that while the language is “difficult,” he “likes challenges.” He spoke for about a half hour, answering questions and cracking jokes. Everyone was very impressed.

Well, almost everyone. Tweets and comments trickled in criticizing his accent, his failure to use proper tones, and the apparently rehearsed nature of many of his phrases. One headline read “Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Mandarin Like a Seven-Year-Old.” The author, Issac Stone Fish, put Zuckerberg’s skills “roughly at the level of someone who studied for two years in college, which means he can communicate like an articulate 7-year-old with a mouth full of marbles.”

Victor Mair at Language Log pegged him at a level “about ¾ of the way through intensive first-year Mandarin,” but still found his efforts impressive. According to Mair, “his tones are indeed a bit wobbly, and his grammar shaky at times, but his pronunciation (vowels and consonants) is generally acceptable, and he has a decent range of vocabulary (actually surprisingly good for someone at his stage of learning the language).”

What is more impressive than Zuckerberg’s command of Mandarin is his relaxed and assured manner. Adults who try to learn foreign languages are most hampered by the problem of self-consciousness, the fear of making mistakes or looking foolish. Not so for Zuckerberg, forging ahead with a smile, on a stage in front of an audience no less. That sort of confident enjoyment in newly acquired language skills goes a long way toward building on those skills. That’s how you really learn a language.

Of course, it helps that he gets such a positive, almost thrilled reaction to everything he says, simply because he’s speaking Chinese. This is not just because he is a billionaire CEO. As Brian Fung points out, “it’s hard to understate how much cultural and political messaging is bound up in a white person speaking Chinese, even bad Chinese … seeing a foreigner deign to speak the national language for a change can yield sheer delight.”

If a Chinese person were to speak in English at a U.S. university at a level on par with Zuckerberg’s Chinese, it would be received with dismay, not delight. But that doesn’t mean the Chinese person didn’t have to work just as hard to get to that level. We should be impressed with Zuckerberg’s Chinese—he put in the effort when he didn’t have to, after all, but we should also remember to be impressed by the many people we meet every day who had to learn English as adults. They’ve likely never had anyone tell them how well they speak it. Take a moment today to spread some language love. Or at least a few likes.

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By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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Photo of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Purchased for $10, Could Be Worth Millions
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, Randy Guijarro paid $2 for a few old photographs he found in an antiques shop in Fresno, California. In 2015, it was determined that one of those photos—said to be the second verified picture ever found of Billy the Kid—could fetch the lucky thrifter as much as $5 million. That story now sounds familiar to Frank Abrams, a lawyer from North Carolina who purchased his own photo of the legendary outlaw at a flea market in 2011. It turns out that the tintype, which he paid $10 for, is thought to be an image of Billy and Pat Garrett (the sheriff who would eventually kill him) taken in 1880. Like Guijarro’s find, experts say Abrams’s photo could be worth millions.

The discovery is as much a surprise to Abrams as anyone. As The New York Times reports, what drew Abrams to the photo was the fact that it was a tintype, a metal photographic image that was popular in the Wild West. Abrams didn’t recognize any of the men in the image, but he liked it and hung it on a wall in his home, which is where it was when an Airbnb guest joked that it might be a photo of Jesse James. He wasn’t too far off.

Using Google as his main research tool, Abrams attempted to find out if there was any famous face in that photo, and quickly realized that it was Pat Garrett. According to The New York Times:

Then, Mr. Abrams began to wonder about the man in the back with the prominent Adam’s apple. He eventually showed the tintype to Robert Stahl, a retired professor at Arizona State University and an expert on Billy the Kid.

Mr. Stahl encouraged Mr. Abrams to show the image to experts.

William Dunniway, a tintype expert, said the photograph was almost certainly taken between 1875 and 1880. “Everything matches: the plate, the clothing, the firearm,” he said in a phone interview. Mr. Dunniway worked with a forensics expert, Kent Gibson, to conclude that Billy the Kid and Mr. Garrett were indeed pictured.

Abrams, who is a criminal defense lawyer, described the process of investigating the history of the photo as akin to “taking on the biggest case you could ever imagine.” And while he’s thrilled that his epic flea market find could produce a major monetary windfall, don’t expect to see the image hitting the auction block any time soon. 

"Other people, they want to speculate from here to kingdom come,” Abrams told The New York Times of how much the photo, which he has not yet had valuated, might be worth. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I love history. It’s a privilege to have something like this.”

[h/t: The New York Times]

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