Rob Cox: Zuckerberg’s Chinese lessons are scalable

By Rob Cox
October 28, 2014

By Rob Cox

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. 

Mark Zuckerberg whipped up a media frenzy last week. It wasn’t quite as big a deal as inventing Facebook. But journalists, bloggers and the Twitterati went gaga after the social network’s founder conducted a question-and-answer session with students at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University entirely in Mandarin.

Kudos to Zuckerberg for reaching a degree of fluency in a tough language. But bilingual chief executives shouldn’t be so remarkable. Learning a foreign language – and then thinking in it – doesn’t just help conquer new markets. It fosters risk-taking and fresh thinking, and helps eliminate biases. The leader of any multinational company should aspire to that.

In fact, it’s a sad reflection on the insularity of the American executive class that Zuckerberg’s ability to chat amiably with Chinese college kids attracted so much comment.

“In a globalized society, you need to be able to confront things you are not familiar with, and the process of learning a language teaches that,” says Michael Geisler, the C.V. Starr Professor in Linguistics and Languages at Middlebury College in Vermont. “You do more than memorize nouns and conjugate verbs – you need to take risks and get over the fact that you might make a fool of yourself.”

Zuckerberg’s decision to learn Chinese in his spare time appears to have been mostly personal. He used it to ask the parents of his Chinese-American wife for their blessing. But Mandarin has other uses closer to Facebook’s ambitions. For now, the social network is still blocked in China. But the 1.4 billion people in the People’s Republic represent the biggest untapped market for a company that claims to have connected 20 percent of the world’s population.

Nearly everyone has heard the amusing if almost certainly fictional tale of General Motors’ Chevrolet division trying to sell its Nova automobile in Mexico a few decades ago. Belatedly, the company realized that “no va” means “doesn’t go” in Spanish. True or not, the broader lesson is clear: Any company trying to sell stuff in a new country needs to speak the language of its potential customers.

That doesn’t necessarily mean every CEO has to be a linguist. English is increasingly dominant as the global language of business, giving a homegrown advantage to American, British, Canadian and Australian executives. And local employees who speak the lingo can also navigate more subtle cultural differences.

Writing in the New York Times two years ago, Larry Summers, former U.S. treasury secretary and ex-president of Harvard University, concluded that efforts like Zuckerberg’s were of doubtful value. “English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile.”

But that takes a narrow view of learning a foreign language. For one thing, it can clarify decision-making. That was one of the findings of a study conducted by University of Chicago professors Boaz Keysar, Sayuri Hayakawa and Sun Gyu An and published in the journal Psychological Science in 2012.

The professors asked students in France, South Korea and the United States variations on a classic question: Would you take a guaranteed $20 over an even bet that could net you $40 or nothing? The Americans were asked to consider the problem in Japanese, which they were studying, while the Koreans and French were posed the question in their second language, English.

The study showed a greater willingness to take the bet when the participants confronted the dilemma in their non-native tongues. “The foreign-language effect on decision-making is most likely determined by multiple facts that increase psychological distance and promote deliberation,” the authors of the study concluded.

Anything beyond an entirely mechanical process also exposes the learner of a new language to aspects of the culture in question, offering insight that could be as useful to a senior executive as the language itself, perhaps more so.

Says Geisler, who as well as overseeing Middlebury’s Language Schools and School Abroad programs serves as the college’s chief risk officer: “Learning a language (and studying the culture) teaches you to quickly adjust to different contexts, and you develop a set of problem-solving skills that is much broader than if you are confined by one language and your own culture.”

Of course, learning a language takes the kind of time that upwardly mobile corporate executives like Zuckerberg often lack. And the Facebook founder picked a tough one. The Foreign Service Institute, which teaches State Department employees, ranks them by difficulty for English speakers. Category I languages, including Spanish, French and Italian, are the easiest. Mandarin, Arabic and Korean are the hardest, in Category V.

When asked why he chose Chinese, Zuckerberg said he liked challenges. That’s surely an understatement, and it probably has a lot to do with why a 30-year-old is running a company worth more than $200 billion.

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