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Why Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg Spent Years Learning Mandarin Chinese

Image: File photo of Mark Zuckerberg speaking to reporters at Harvard University in Cambridge

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks to reporters at Harvard University in 2011. BRIAN SNYDER / Reuters file

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stunned Chinese students when he conducted a half-hour discussion in Mandarin on Wednesday. Zuck's skills delighted the open-mouthed onlookers — but experts say it's all part of Zuckerberg's quest to conquer China, and effectively the world.

Facebook says its mission to is to "make the world more open and connected," but it faces a major roadblock in China. The nation banned Facebook — along with other social sites like Twitter and YouTube — in 2009.

"Is [China] critical to success of Facebook? The answer is no; there's a huge global market outside China," said Brian Blau, consumer tech and markets analyst at research firm Gartner. "But having China will make [Facebook's] global ascent, so to speak, complete. And that's absolutely what they want."

The company has ramped up its make-nice efforts this year, but none has been splashier than Zuckerberg's charm offensive at Tsinghua University's renowned business school on Wednesday.

"I’m so glad to be in Beijing. I love the city," Zuckerberg said in heavily accented Mandarin at the start of the session, revealing his Mandarin skills publicly for the first time. Students gasped audibly throughout the video-recorded discussion, during which Zuckerberg said he learned the language partly because his in-laws speak it, and partly because learning a language helps one understand a country's culture.

The ability to avoid using a translator for business dealings comes in handy, too — especially in China, where communications are typically more formal and government authorities' view of free speech lies in diametric opposition to that of Facebook. (The company did not reply to a request for comment on this article.)

It's not as if China would be merely another line item for Zuck & Co. to add to the list of Facebook-friendly countries; its sheer size makes it tough for any company to ignore. As of April, China had a whopping 618 million Internet users — about double the entire U.S. population — according to data that Topeka Capital Markets analyst Victor Anthony cited in a research note earlier this year.

If Facebook could sign up just 30 percent of those Chinese Internet users (compared with the site's 70 percent penetration in the United States) it would add value of $3 to $4 per Facebook share, Anthony said.

"China is a sore spot for Facebook and its competitors," said Blau, the Gartner analyst. "It's a big potential revenue opportunity. They've all struggled with what to do."

Facebook is trying to figure it out. Tsinghua University announced Monday that Zuckerberg will join its influential board, which includes Apple CEO Tim Cook and other high-profile business leaders. A Facebook spokesperson told Reuters later that day that Zuckerberg will spend several days in Beijing this week to meet with advertising partners and experts to learn about the market.

The company has also been busy hiring Chinese graduate students for positions in the U.S., according to a Chinese-language report that Anthony cited in his research note.

"We believe it is a matter of when, not if, Facebook enters China," Anthony wrote.

Mark Zuckerberg Wows Audience by Speaking Chinese 0:30

But Blau, the Gartner analyst, doesn't think those steps are enough to soften the Chinese government's Facebook ban — with or without Zuckerberg's Mandarin.

"Will it change the biz climate? No. He's just speaking Chinese," Blau said. "They're not changing their product that got banned. But sure, knowing the native language makes him look accommodating and shows he's making an effort."

The fabled extra effort it takes for a native English speaker to learn Mandarin versus Spanish, for example, added to the allure of Zuckerberg's Q&A session.

"The idea that there's something inherently difficult about learning Mandarin is a misconception," said Grant Goodall, professor of linguistics and director of the language program at the University of California at San Diego.

Instead, Goodall said, the difficulty is the lack of cognates between Mandarin and English; that is, television is "télévision" in French and "televisión" in Spanish. One doesn't have to work hard to commit those to memory.

"The difference is that when learning a Romance language, you get a bunch of words for 'free,' so to speak," Goodall said. "So it's a big, big time commitment [to learn Mandarin]. If someone spent 100 hours learning Spanish, it would take 200 to 300 hours to get to the same level in Mandarin."

So Zuckerberg deserves the Internet's collective clap on the back, Blau said, even if it doesn't thaw the icy Facebook-China relations.

"One of the wealthiest guys in the world runs a tough brand every day and took this on to improve himself," Blau said. "That's just a job well done no matter how you look at it."