Zuckerberg Speaks Chinese, Multilinguals Rejoice

As you probably heard, last week Facebook’s CEO visited Tsinghua University– considered one of the most elite in China – and spoke to the students there for half an hour. In Mandarin.

It made a big splash in the news. But apart from PR mileage, there are some important localization lessons from Mark Zuckerberg’s foray into Mandarin, especially for monolingual CEOs and companies.

Looking beyond English Tolerance

The audience at Tsinghua University was made up of business management students, most of whom speak English fluently. In fact, Zuckerberg was introduced to the audience in English. But when he started speaking in Mandarin, the audience was clearly amazed, touched. And this was not a one-sided conversation, but an interaction with the audience. So when the audience asked him something in Mandarin, he comprehended it and threw some Mandarin back at them. Obviously, this wasn’t what the audience was expecting!

Zuckerberg’s gesture fits perfectly in line with Facebook’s public image. The 1.8-billion-strong social network has always put language at the forefront of its international expansion strategy and currently boasts support for over 60 languages. It provided language support even in countries like India where the seeming English tolerance is high and saw its adoption rate sky-rocket.

Facebook and its CEO seem to understand and acknowledge the power of languages and what globalization can do for their business. Which brings me to the next point.

Business and Culture – Different but Not Disconnected

Bear with me as I repeat a few words from Nelson Mandela that are often quoted: “If you talk to a man in a language that he understands, it goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, it goes to his heart.”

Marketing professionals know all too well the need to form an emotional connection with the consumer. That is how business and culture meet. You may adopt a language for business reasons, but from the user’s perspective, you are building the bridge to lifelong brand loyalty.

The first hurdle a company from overseas has to face is the “outsider” label. That label might work fine for a luxury brand, where being out-of-the-ordinary is the unique selling proposition, but you can imagine the hostility a consumer goods or software company might face if it doesn’t make an effort to localize.

Speaking the local language is the key to unlocking a new culture, and from there, the wallet it commands. As a best practice in today’s world, companies should not feel bound to the culture of the markets they operate in, but rather make every effort to respect and internalize them. Language is a natural starting place.

How Good is Zuckerberg’s Mandarin? Doesn’t Matter

People who are analyzing Zuckerberg’s Mandarin proficiency are missing the point. Zuckerberg didn’t claim to be any sort of expert on Mandarin. His goal was simply to engage in a conversation with the audience and he succeeded.

Companies tearing their metaphoric hair on translation quality could take a cue from this. Sometimes it’s not possible to have a perfect translation up and ready by the time you want (or need) to enter a new market. That doesn’t mean you should go in totally unequipped. Sometimes, translation with a passable quality is better than no translation at all – as long as you avoid embarrassing gaffes. Another alternative in the short term is to translate a limited number of pages and make only those available on the relevant localized site.

The Medium Is the Message

This is not a localization lesson per se, but has more to do with Facebook’s particular fortunes in China – or the lack thereof. Facebook has been banned in China since 2009. Last week’s talk in Mandarin might have been one way of showing just how serious the company is about the Chinese market and their determination to crack it. A fine example of the medium being the message.

Leveraging the Language Advantage

When the Tsinghua audience asked Zuckerberg what Facebook’s plans were for China, he said his company was already in China. What he meant was that Chinese companies were using Facebook to reach out to foreign customers. He cited the example of Lenovo advertising on Facebook to lure Indonesian customers. Facebook owes its huge user base in Indonesia – the fourth highest after the US, India, and Brazil – in no small measure to its support for Bahasa Indonesia. Facebook is now effectively trying to reap this language dividend. Still worrying about translation ROI, anyone?

Lastly, and this is an important lesson to CEOs all over the world, monolingual or not: Zuckerberg’s talk in Mandarin was above all a great act of leadership. Apart from being a very smart business move, it showed the world that Facebook didn’t become a global company purely by chance, but by adopting a truly global outlook. More importantly, Zuckerberg carved for himself and his company a distinct identity in the minds of the Chinese.

Just like human beings, companies have a lot to gain from opening up to another culture. But don’t worry if you don’t have the Facebook CEO’s linguistic skills – that’s why we have translators and interpreters.

Image Source: Frederic Legrand / Shutterstock.com