Mark Zuckerberg recently made news because of a dialogue he gave at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, where he spoke (Mandarin) Chinese. Here’s the link to the full video, 30 minutes long.
There have been news coverage about Zuckerberg’s Chinese language skills, from laudatory “Of course he speaks fluent Mandarin” headlines to less-than-favourable comparisons to that of a seven-year old. It turns out that there is a problem with the mixed coverage of Zuckerberg’s student dialogue — the news and the public often get confused what language “fluency” is.
Zuckerberg’s spoken Chinese, while mostly coherent, and with some interruptions, mangled most of the tones that the Chinese language is widely known for. BBC’s coverage pointed out that Zuckerberg’s failure to properly produce tones led him to claim that Facebook had just “11 mobile users” instead of “one billion.”
To understand how “fluent” one is when talking about mastery of a foreign language, one needs to understand the difference between “competence,” “performance,” “fluency,” and “proficiency” — four terms often used in such discussions. I’ll attempt to explain the differences between these four concepts.
Language competence and performance are the two biggest things that people are actually talking about when discussing a person’s L2 (foreign-language) “fluency.” Simply put, competence is a person’s grasp on the language’s grammar, phonological/phonetic rules, etc. Thus a person can be completely competent in a language but unable to perform as well. An example would be a person completely able to understand and speak Spanish, but unable to roll one’s R’s.
The distinction between competence and performance was notoriously made by Noam Chomsky in 1965. However, Chomsky’s notion of grammatical and phonological (linguistic) competence was expanded by Dell Hymes in 1966. It included the knowing of appropriateness of topics and politeness (sociolinguistic), understanding how to combine language structures into different oral and written types (discourse), and knowing how to repair communication breakdown in the presence of interference (strategic). These concepts came to be known as “communicative competence” in literature.
Zuckerberg’s Chinese performance with his tones was bad, but he understood most of the questions asked. He was also able to answer simple to moderately complex questions in grammatically-sound Chinese. His use of humour and appropriate politeness further signals competence. It can be said that he’s mostly competent in Chinese.
Fluency is the measure of the ease of production of the language. It can be measured by speed, sustainment, and/or lack of breaks. Fluency includes not only speech fluency, but reading, writing, and even listening. Thus a person could be illiterate and have a limited vocabulary, but can be considered fluent if the speech occurs at a smooth pace. Zuckerberg’s speech does contain many pauses in parts of his speech, to the point that it might be hard for the listener to understand what he’s trying to say. He may not be very fluent, but through context of his speech, listeners (especially native speakers) are able to repair the content of his speech mostly.
Lastly, proficiency is the mastery of how well one uses the language, and can usually be tested by means such as the TOEFL or JLPT. One thing that was pointed out to me is that in language testing, proficiency is usually norm-referenced; that means that test takers are tested on how well they did in comparison to other test takers. This is different from criterion-referenced tests, such as the GCEs and GCSEs, where test takers are measured if they meet a set of pre-defined criteria. Once again, a speaker can be fluent in the language, but not necessarily proficient.