Bridging the Language Divide

A successful American businessman generated news headlines this week when he delivered a 30 minute speech and then took questions from an audience. The speech took place at Tsinghua University, one of China’s foremost seats of learning in Beijing. Reporters reported, commentators commented and people around the world remarked upon the ‘awesome’ nature of the speech on various social media platforms, including the businessman’s own.

Facebook's CEO speaks in Mandarin in China and the English speaking world is wowed.

Facebook’s CEO speaks in Mandarin in China and the English speaking world is wowed.

A Chinese businessman generated news headlines a few weeks earlier when he also delivered a speech and took questions. People in the audience tweeted and retweeted and ‘liked’ elements of what the executive said. The event took place in Hong Kong, at the Economist magazine’s annual Innovation Summit.

The thing that makes these seemingly similar events different is that the interest generated by the Chinese businessman’s talk was about what he said; the headlines generated by the American businessman were about how he said it: he spoke in Mandarin. Not a single media report or tweet expressed amazement that the Chinese businessman spoke in a language not his own.

Mandarin Chinese is a difficult language for a native English speaker to learn. My own progress is painfully slow despite living here so I respect Mark Zuckerberg’s effort and achievement. I’m reliably informed that English is no easier for a native Mandarin speaker to master than Mandarin is for an English speaker.

Interest declared: I helped the Chinese businessman to write his speech and coached him on speaking in English. While the ideas were all his, my job was to ensure all the words chosen came easily to him, that the ideas were clear and that the structure of the speech made it as easy as possible for the audience to follow. Had the press stories led with the line that he’d spoken in English, I’d have been disappointed: the important thing for both he and I was that his message was heard and understood.

I have no idea whether Facebook’s comms department was happy with the coverage Mr Zuckerberg achieved or not. It’s difficult to find media reports about what he actually said. It’s entirely possible that Mark Zuckerberg’s key message was his outstretched hand to China’s elite. If the message was something different, it went largely unreported.

Facebook is blocked in China by the Chinese government, unavailable to anyone without the technical tools to bypass state censorship. Yet despite the block (Twitter, Instagram, Google, the New York Times among others are also blocked) that disables China’s 1.35 billion people sharing content on Facebook, the company generates significant revenue in China. Chinese companies are active advertisers on Facebook’s global platform, using ‘sponsored posts’ as an effective way to reach existing and potential customers around the world. If Mr Zuckerberg was simply building bridges to build future revenue, his objective was likely met.

What does the west’s reaction to Mr Zuckerberg’s speech say about English language bias in our multilingual planet? China is the world’s second largest economy and its population is almost double the United States and Europe combined. In today’s global market, maybe its time the English-speaking world embraced more openly China’s culture and language, alongside its commercial potential?

There is a deepening geo-political battle underway between the US and China, driven largely by mutual fear and mistrust, by unfamiliarity with the other side. The reaction to Mr Zuckerberg’s speech should act as a reminder of this enduring gap, while his efforts to speak in the language of his hosts serves as an example to others in bridging international relations.