Strategy of Condescension

中文翻譯 Chinese translation

That Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave an interview in Chinese was big news this week. You can see the start of the interview here:

As you can hear, Zuckerberg’s performance was greeted with “repeated cheers and applause by the assembled students and faculty members.” I don’t want to pick apart Zuckerberg’s Chinese – he only started learning a few years ago, but still did better than some people I know who have lived in Taiwan for over a decade. Nor do I want to focus on the mixed reactions he got on the internet later on. Rather, I want to engage in a thought experiment. Can you imagine a Western audience cheering and applauding a Chinese CEO for speaking in English?

Pierre Bourdieu uses the term “strategy of condescension”1 to refer to the “act of symbolically negating” the power relationship between two languages. He argues that such a strategy ultimately serves to strengthen the hierarchy between the two languages in question. He compares the excessive praise given to a mayor speaking “good quality Béarnais” with much more fluent Béarnais coming from the mount of a peasant. Unlike the Mayor’s speech, that of the peasant would not only be “totally devoid of value” but “would be sociologically impossible in a formal situation.” Indeed, a Chinese CEO speaking English in public at the level displayed by Mark Zuckerberg in Chinese would be a source of considerable embarrassment to all around.

What is interesting about this, however, is that Chinese is not Béarnais. China’s economy is on the verge of surpassing the size of the US economy and the Chinese language is one of the most important world languages, with the number of Westerners studying Chinese as a second language rising fast. So what is happening? I think there are several factors at work here. One is China’s self-image as the underdog. Pointing out insults to China’s “national dignity” is a frequently used tactic in Chinese foreign policy. Another is the extent to which access to English-medium higher education in the UK or America is still a status marker for the Chinese elite. And a third is a legacy of thinking about Chinese language ability in racial terms. This last one is true in Taiwan as well, as I documented in my tongue-in-cheek post on “Seven Ways to Talk to a White Man.” I haven’t been in China recently, but from what I’ve heard, it is even more unusual for foreigners to speak Chinese well there than it is in Taiwan.

In this regard it is interesting to compare Chinese to French. French was once the language of international relations and the cosmopolitain elite. It still holds on to that status in certain realms, but not to the same extent it once did. French people still expect foreigners to at least make an effort to speak some French, and don’t bat an eye if they speak it well. They certainly don’t cheer and applause. French attitudes towards English may have changed over the years, but a rather blasé attitude towards foreigners speaking French still seems to be the norm. One comparison I like to make is between the Taipei and Paris metro systems. While both the Parisian and Taipei systems have multilingual announcements2, with one of the languages being English, the English announcements in Taiwan are unusual, to say the least. Many of the stops have no official English name. Instead, the announcements deliberately mispronounce the Chinese name the way they guess a non-Chinese speaking foreigner might. I certainly can’t imagine the French mutilating their own language to make it easier for Americans who can’t be bothered to pronounce it correctly! Again, this is Taiwan, not China, but I think there is a shared insecurity about the status of Chinese in the two countries, especially with regard to English as a global language.

It is true that Chinese is a hard language for non-native speakers to learn, but it is also hard for Chinese speakers to learn English. I think we can imagine a day when Chinese-speakers expect foreigners to display competence in Chinese equivalent to that they are expected to display in English when abroad. A day when fluency in Chinese goes without cheers and applause. But, for all of the reasons I’ve listed above, it probably won’t happen anytime soon.

UPDATE: Completely re-wrote the section on the Paris metro to reflect the corrections in the comments. (I don’t recall hearing multilingual announcements in Paris this summer, but the sound system on the metro isn’t always working that well.)

UPDATE II: Added a link to an interview with Zheng Wang about his book Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations.


  1. Bourdieu, Pierre. “Price formation and the anticipation of profits.” Language and symbolic power (1991): 66-89. (p. 81) 
  2. See comments for fuller discussion of multilingualism on the Paris metro. 

9 thoughts on “Strategy of Condescension

  1. Hi Kerim
    Actually, the Paris Metro system is not monolingual, as you would discover if you were ever to drop in to Paris 8 University. It’s the last stop on the line, and voyagers are warned that they need to get out of the train in four languages. They use native speakers. The new(ish) automated line from St. Lazare to the François Mitterand Library has similar multi-lingual announcements.
    Best
    Tim Mason

  2. Good points! I suppose I would add that the language hierarchy is of great use (no matter how uncomfortable it makes us) for those of us who are white English native speaking western anthropologists.

    I certainly got undue amounts of praise, especially at the beginning. It’s awkward but it certainly helps…

  3. To follow up on Tim Mason’s comment, most lines have announcements in three languages: French and English, plus a third language, which might be German, Italian, or Spanish. The Line 1 adds a fourth language: Japanese. The multilingual announcements mostly regard warnings (“mind the gap”, “beware of pickpockets”, etc.), whereas the names of stations are not translated into different languages. Each station is announced twice: upon approach in voice with a rising tone, and upon arrival in a voice with a falling tone. (In contrast to stating “next station…” or “this station…”)

    Another place in Paris where you will encounter multilingual announcements is in the opera. The Bastille Opera has signs indicating such things as the bathrooms that are written in the main languages of opera: Italian, German, and French. Plus English.

  4. How important was it, I wonder, that the speaker was Mark Zuckerberg. John Kennedy saying, “Ich bin ein Berliner” comes to mind. Alternatively, I think of possible differences in the enthusiasm of “Oh, you can speak. . .” when the speaker was, for example, an American student arriving in Japan shortly after the Occupation and the same student today when many foreigners speak Japanese and the commonest question has become, “Nihongo daijoubu?” i.e., “Japanese OK?”

  5. I think we can imagine a day when Chinese-speakers expect foreigners to display competence in Chinese equivalent to that they are expected to display in English when abroad.

    But this ignores the fact that people don’t necessarily speak/expect others to speak English because it’s their native language (it’s certainly not mine), or because America is a powerful economy. English is simply the lingua franca in many areas of life, and international exchange at universities is one of them. Of course it would be “fair” if the Chinese would demand foreigners to be fluent in Chinese instead of English, but IMHO fairness doesn’t beat the advantages of having a global common language (kind of).

  6. Great analysis. I almost skipped it because I’ve been getting tired of the commentary focusing on the same thing. This summarized my discomfort perfectly. This asymmetry of symbolic power is the key issue. It mirrors my experiences with the Peace Corps. Despite the honestly good intentions of the volunteers trying to learn it, there was still a taste of the inherent superiority of English as a global language. Learning the local language was the ‘polite thing to do’ and even if often necessary for daily business never quite the crux of survival. While the intentions of individuals were largely on the right side, the systemic inequality just could not be overcome.

    But, I think the issue on the Chinese side is even more complex than you describe, I suspect. The utilitarian ‘lingua franca’ argument also plays a role. But so does the fact that neither English nor previously French or Latin achieved their status in a political vacuum. It was a result of complex and protracted negotiations as well as targeted campaigns. Despite the proliferation of its Confucius Institutes, China is not making global Chinese literacy a policy issue in the same way that former colonial powers were. I was once at a conference in Paris (held in English) that was invaded by campaigners reading a communique about the imperial expansion of English and demanded that all talks be translated into French. Completely ignoring the fact that France was pretty much the only country in the world where such a demand would seem sensible to the ‘natives’ precisely because of its imperial past.

  7. We have to also consider Zuckerberg’s reason for attempting to speak Mandarin. Had he learnt from Google’s failure to enter the Chinese market, and he was not going to make the same mistake. Was Zuckerberg’s speaking Chinese a way of signalling “I am not Google.”

    As to Western audience’s being blasé about foreigners speaking English, I only have to reflect on how much of CNN’s coverage of the Ebola crisis has focused exclusively on a few doctors and nurses in the U.S.. Domestic audiences tend to see issues (language, epidemics) in a way that is transparent, transforming them into local and not overseas issues.

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