GOP Presidential candidate and former US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman was put on the defensive recently by a Slate article questioning Huntsman’s one skill the majority of Americans have generally taken for granted — his fluency in Chinese.
Slate writer Geoffrey Sant uses what evidence available to him in order to critique Huntsman’s Mandarin skills, primarily via YouTube, with his apparent prompt being Huntsman’s recent appearance on The Colbert Report.
“I really want you to do my vice America-president”
When asked to speak Chinese on the show, Huntsman said “我很想你做我的副美国总统”, which translates directly to “I really want you to do my vice America-president”. Huntsman instead delighted the crowd, by telling Colbert his Chinese meant, “You ought to consider being my running mate for vice president.”
Huntman’s halting unfamiliarity with a language he is supposedly fluent in was further emphasized in his appearance earlier this year on CNN with Piers Morgan, aka the usurper to the throne of the Once and Future Larry King.
In the video, Huntsman’s made-up grammar and absurd referral to himself as “Mr. Jon Hunstman” seemingly further vindicates Sant’s charge, who also points out the fact that the GOP presidential candidate, much like Superman, seems to keep 90% of his potential hidden inside of him:
It is difficult to evaluate Huntsman’s Chinese-speaking ability because he so rarely speaks more than a brief sentence or two and never says anything particularly difficult. An NPR report describing Huntsman’s appearance on Colbert referred to his “seldom demonstrated” Chinese ability, and a blogger complained that “his Mandarin is pretty damn hard to scrutinize” because Huntsman has rarely said much.
So, how then, do we go from “his Mandarin is difficult to scrutinize” to “he’s not fluent”?
Sant relies on Huntsman’s specious lack of eloquent speeches in Mandarin to Chinese audiences as definitive proof of the Mormon candidate is only “fluent” in front of English speaking talk-show hosts. Why, indeed, would someone fluent in Chinese ever choose to address a Chinese audience in English?
After all, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who’s held up as the gold standard for being legitimately fluent in Chinese, is equally at home when speaking Mandarin at APEC meetings, or telling jokes to students at Tsinghua University.
Perhaps Huntsman does it for the same reason Hu Jintao chooses to address Americans in Chinese. Are we really supposed to believe Hu, a hydroelectric engineering graduate from the prestigious Tsinghua, is unable to comprehend or memorize a speech in English? Politicians stick to languages they’re familiar with when making a point, so that their meaning comes across clearly and their words are not misconstrued.
In the flesh
Last year, we had the opportunity to see Huntsman speak to a mostly Chinese crowd in Hangzhou about bringing America and China closer together. Though he used simple language, a large majority of Chinese still found it difficult to understand him. Some may see that as Huntsman’s lack of skills, but we could also argue that most Chinese lack an ear for foreign accents.
The tonal system of Chinese being what it is, a pronunciation mixup in a taxi between the first tone (flat) and the third tone (dipping) will get you to two completely different places in Shanghai (山西路/陕西路), even though they sound virtually the same with a foreign accent.
What we’d really like to see, and what would be the real test (apart from him actually taking the HSK, which would be interesting too), would be Huntsman sitting down in a completely informal setting and discussing a wide range of topics, perhaps with a hidden camera rolling.
Credit where credit’s due
We have no doubt he’ll stumble and create new sentence structures at times. But if he can be understood, and understands a wide range of topics, then the question of Huntsman’s “fluency” should be laid to rest, as far as we’re concerned.
Though we’re not saying Huntsman should be fawned over wherever he goes, a pitch-perfect oral Chinese ability is a rare bird indeed, and Mr. Jon Huntsman deserves a measure of respect for the language skills he’s already achieved, perfect fluency or no.
What do you think of Huntsman’s Chinese? Watch the videos below and let us know in the comments.