You know learning Mandarin is fashionable when it has become the selling point of a presidential campaign. Indeed, perhaps the most telling sign of China's prominence is the role that Jon Huntsman's Mandarin skills have played in his public persona. Huntsman's television appearances frequently include a snippet showing off his Chinese skills. In fact, he even used Chinese to tell Mitt Romney off during last Saturday's Republican debate, leaving his competitor dumbfounded.
For most Americans, it may be the first time that they have seen a politician with such fluency in Chinese, but Huntsman is hardly the only person in the English-speaking political arena to embrace an East Asian language. Indeed, while Huntsman's Mandarin is noteworthy, he may meet his match in Kevin Rudd, Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs, who will be visiting Asia Society New York this Friday, January 13.
We asked Asia Society's Chinese Language Learning Initative Director Christopher Livaccari about the significance of people's fascination with these public figures' linguistic abilities. Here are his insights:
I think what is most intriguing about the intense interest in determining whether or not Rudd or Hunstman speaks Mandarin "fluently" is that it seems to reflect the outmoded idea of the difficulty or "inscrutability" of Chinese. People are still stuck on the notion that Chinese is an incredibly difficult language that is impossible to learn, unless you are brought up speaking it, so anyone who claims proficiency in the language is immediately regarded either with suspicion (you can’t really speak Chinese) or with admiration (you must be incredibly smart to have learned such an impossible language).
The bottom line is that, although developing literacy in Chinese and learning to read and write is a very challenging process — even for native speakers, it should be noted — the basics of Chinese grammar and sentence structure are relatively easy to learn, even compared to languages like Spanish, French, and Italian. While the language has fewer words that are cognates with English and a tonal system that is unfamiliar to English speakers, with some effort, anyone can learn the language, particularly if he or she lives and works in a Chinese-speaking environment.
If anything, this idea of the difficulty of learning Chinese for foreigners is perhaps even more widespread among Chinese people themselves. This mirrors what happened in Japan several decades ago when a few Japanese-speaking foreigners made a sizable living appearing on Japanese TV just to demonstrate that they could speak Japanese — the so-called gaijin tarento ("foreigner talents").
As Japan's economy grew and the nation became more globally engaged, interest in foreigners solely because they could speak Japanese tapered off, and we are just beginning to see this kind of shift in China — though most foreigners can still impress with a simple "ni hao!"
Rudd and Huntsman represent a first generation of politicians who have developed proficiency in a non-European language, and I think that in and of itself should be celebrated. While there have been comments about the Spanish-speaking abilities of George W. Bush or NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, it never seems to have gone to the same extremes.
While neither Huntsman nor Rudd is in danger of being mistaken for a native Chinese speaker, the bottom line is that we should be thankful to have politicians who have had the experience of learning another language and culture — particularly one as different from English as Chinese — in a deep and meaningful way. Whether or not they can negotiate a trade agreement in Mandarin is simply beside the point.
This Friday, Kevin Rudd will be discussing the prospects for the East Asia Summit to become an effective forum for addressing critical political, economic and security challenges as Asian countries rise in the economic echelons. Who knows, he may even be up to showing off some of his Chinese skills live.
And while Livaccari insists that "neither Huntsman nor Rudd are in danger of being mistaken for native Chinese speakers," I wouldn't be so sure. Judge for yourself in the clips below.
Who do you think is the more fluent speaker?
Video: Piers Morgan prompts Jon Huntsman to speak Chinese
Video: Kevin Rudd makes a speech for China's Caijing magazine
Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd will speak during a luncheon event at Asia Society in New York on Friday, January 13, 2012. His remarks will be followed by a conversation and a question and answer period moderated by Asia Society President Vishakha Desai. Can't make it to this program? Tune in to AsiaSociety.org/Live from 12:30 to 2:00 pm ET for a free live video webcast. Online viewers are encouraged to submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.