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.