This article appeared on LinkedIn.
At that event, Mark bravely managed to deliver his speech and answer questions from the audience -- entirely in Chinese.
Yes, as one expert noted at the time, he mangled his grammar and pronunciation. But he did what few (if any) CEOs of multi-billion-dollar companies have done during their business trips to China: He took the time to learn and speak the language.
During the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday in February last year, Mark and his wife Priscilla recorded a video with their adorable newborn daughter, Max. Again, Zuckerberg put his Mandarin chops on display for the entire world to hear.
And while he demonstrated considerable improvement, he wasn't perfect. His sing-songy, slightly off-kilter pronunciation showed he hasn't quite tackled Mandarin's four distinct tones. But like his speech at Tsinghua, it was an impressive feat nonetheless. You can't not give him some props for his effort.
Whatever Mark's motives may be for learning the language -- to share in the rich cultural heritage of his wife, or perhaps impress the authorities in Beijing into finally making Facebook accessible in China (never say "never") -- he's set an example that others might want to follow.
Here are some reasons I believe -- as a Mandarin speaker of nearly 30 years -- you should consider learning the language as well:
Chinese matters more than ever before. With 1.3 billion Mandarin speakers at home, and several million more speakers living in nearly every country of the world, Chinese is one of the most widely spoken languages on earth. It's also one of the most popular languages on the internet (Chinese love the internet and have taken to social media with a fervor that is hard to match anywhere in the world).
No, Chinese has not acquired the international lingua franca status of English. But the likelihood that you'll hear Chinese spoken and see Chinese characters pop-up somewhere near you these days is higher than ever. And you don't even have to go to China these days to find yourself working with colleagues and customers for whom Chinese is their first language. A small investment in learning the language could translate into more business and career opportunities. Or just more friends.
It's enormous fun. Learning any language requires a lot of time and effort, and Chinese is no different. But mastering it shouldn't be seen solely as a chore. Learning Mandarin -- and especially using it in real situations -- can be a lot of fun. Besides being able to order off of a restaurant menu and knowing what I'm actually about to eat, or reading a news article without having to run it through Google translate, Chinese is a virtual sandbox for amateur linguists like me who enjoy mashing up meanings and playing with puns.
It's easier than you think. Chinese characters are beautiful. For thousands of years, calligraphy has been one of the major forms of artistic expression in Chinese culture.
And...Chinese characters also scare the heck out of many potential learners of the language. But they shouldn't, because you don't have to learn the written language to get started with learning how to speak. And you can move up the learning curve way faster in Mandarin than you can when you learn other languages.
Having studied Spanish, French, Japanese, and Hebrew over the years, I can assure you that you'll probably become proficient in Mandarin just as quickly -- if not more quickly --than when you learn any of these languages.
While there are some grammatical features that are unique to Chinese, the grammar is strikingly minimalist: No tenses (and therefore no conjugations needed), no male-female distinction between nouns or pronouns, no plural forms.
And, while written Chinese, with its thousands of characters, admittedly takes much more time to master than English or other alphabetic scripts, it's very systematic in the way it is structured, making it a whole lot easier to learn than most people fear.
To take one simple example, the word "hao", which means "good", is comprised of two parts: The character for woman, "nu", on the left, and the character for child, "zi", on the right. And each of these characters can be broken down into a few standardized strokes, that when mastered, give you the tools you need to write any of the thousands of Chinese characters that are commonly used today.
There are more resources for learning the language than ever before. When I started studying Chinese nearly 30 years ago, I had to rely on all of the traditional methods of learning a new language: A classroom led by a teacher, audio tapes, and a textbook. My father spent thousands of dollars on my Chinese courses at college.
It worked for me then, but it's not necessarily how you need to learn the language now. Today, you can go to iTunes and subscribe to free podcasts, or download audio lessons or install apps and start learning Chinese at your own pace (and for far less money than what my dad paid). Or you can even learn with a tutor from China who can teach you online, in real-time, and in the comfort of your own home.
The learning process never ends. I started learning Chinese nearly 30 years ago, but I still consider myself a student of the language, and always will. I'm fluent, yes, but I don't speak like a native --and probably never will. Like anyone who has studied Chinese or any other language for a number of years, you soon realize that the learning process never ends.
But that's no reason not to start.