In October 2014, Mark Zuckerberg addressed an audience.
This wasn’t the first time the Facebook founder had given a speech, but itwas the first time he’d given one in Mandarin — much to the surprise of the Beijing audience. No one can deny that the first minute of the speech felt strange to the ears and eyes — here was a white American man connecting tones and words that weren’t his own, and were alien to those watching from his native America. But while the Chinese audience applauded him, others at home, and elsewhere, were quick to put down his attempts to connect with the crowd.
One piece claimed that Zuckerberg sounded like he had a ‘mouthful of marbles’, later picking out a word that he’d mispronounced.
This same negative scrutiny followed when he gave another speech in Chinese last year. One writer described his efforts as ‘clumsy Mandarin’.
In my experience, the hardest thing about learning a new language (normally a second language, as opposed to a third or fourth) isn’t retaining the information or learning tenses, it’s finding the confidence to open your mouth and say things aloud, into the ear space of those who know it inside out. I’ve written about it before because it’s often an unexpected but tricky stumbling block for those trying to adopt a new language. Whether it’s in front of your language teacher, a local while you’re on holiday or, should you be Mark Zuckerberg, thousands of fans, joining the vocabulary you’ve learnt with the accent and sounds to match can feel painfully embarrassing, even if you get it right. What makes it worse is that speaking in this new tongue as often as possible is the only real ‘secret’ to improving.
Over time, perhaps thanks to this necessity of speaking, the burning cheeks start to cool, and you adopt the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ aphorism, but there’s still a feeling of self-consciousness that doesn’t ever seem to shift.
So, Zuckerberg did good. I’ve let my own self-doubt foil my attempts at saying the simplest of sentences in a foreign language many a time, so the fact Zuckerberg made a lengthy speech about very niche, specific things in Mandarin is impressive on lots of levels.
Of course, us, the everyday people, didn’t need to coo at his new skills (in fact, many of us probably felt like we didn’t want to, simply out of bitterness or envy for his already-awesome CV), and maybe some of us simply weren’t blown away. But we also didn’t need to be his critiquing language teacher (who, incidentally, is a mixture of himself and his wife). We didn’t need to pick apart his achievement, pull out a mispronounciation or an incorrect tone. Not only is that not our job as human beings (you know, who should support one another), it also wasn’t what the speech was about. It was about Facebook, you guys.
Something else worth remembering is that global figureheads are also human beings, and perhaps, like many of us, are afraid of public speaking, or find themselves stumbling over words even in their own language. For some reason we expect them to be able to deliver information seamlessly to us, no trips or falls. They’re not robots. Just hugely impressive geniuses.
Zuckerberg took one for the team that day, putting his skills out there to be seen and commented on by millions of Internet users. Fellow language learners do it every day, but on a lesser scale, perhaps over Skype or in a forum. And plenty of them are teased and humiliated by other users for their errors or queries. But, brave as they are, they can erase their post or turn the camera off. To put it simply, Zuckerberg was a model student; the language student many of us, me included, want to be.
Learning to communicate using words your mouth isn’t accustomed to, and abiding by their rules and sounds, requires patience, persistence and fearlessness. Three qualities that aren’t to be laughed at in any scenario. Just ask billionaire wonderkid, Mark Zuckerberg.