Speak Chinese in BeijingI got butterflies in my stomach as I sat watching President Park Geun-hye deliver her speech in English to the U.S. Congress on May 8 Korean time on TV. She has been generally known to be fluent in several languages, including English, but still I couldn’t help myself for being nervous. She might get tongue-tied or forget her words.
However, the speech went relatively well. She received heavy applause and was impressive. Some sneered that rapper Psy speaks better English, but I wanted to congratulate her on a job well done.
Why did she go through the pain of delivering her speech in English in front of the elite group of U.S. congressmen instead of her native tongue? The reason is simple. She wanted to win the hearts of Americans. To speak in their native tongue is an expression of respect and compassion toward the host country and its people.
To speak eloquent English is not so easy. But one does not need to speak like a native to be considered eloquent. How one conveys the words with sincerity can make the difference. President Barack Obama left an impression during his lecture to a group of students at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies during his visit to Seoul in March with the closing comment “Let’s go hand in hand” in Korean.
President Park became the second Asian woman to stand before the U.S. Congress podium and deliver her words in English after Soong May-ling, the first lady of the Republic of China and wife of President Chiang Kai-shek in 1943. She struck a chord with the American audience in fluent English through the American “language and heart” to beseech support for her husband’s government.
Mao Zedong, the political rival of her husband, was equally passionate about mastering English. He could not reach fluency, but nevertheless knew a lot of words, according to Zhou Enlai, Mao’s closest aide in consolidating the Communist Party’s rise to power and the first prime minister of the People’s Republic of China.
Mao cited three reasons for learning English. One because it was fun, two it helped brain training, and three to read English political science and philosophy books. His secretary had to carry his English textbook everywhere. He learned the language mostly through English translation of his publications in Chinese.
The second destination for President Park’s state visit is China next month. China is strategically as important as the United States to help solve not only the North Korean problem, but also because of the intricate and extensive association with the world’s most populated and second-largest economy on the economical, social and cultural level. Can she be equally receptive in China?
I wish to see another job well done in China by watching her deliver her speech in Chinese. I picture her addressing students at elite schools like Beijing University or Tsinghua University on the common paths of South Koreans and Chinese in Mandarin.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave a speech at Beijing University in Mandarin in 2008, making him the first foreign state leader to do so. It is hardly surprising, given his background. He studied Chinese at university and served as a diplomat in Beijing. He even has a Chinese name.
Park, on the other hand, is self-taught. She practiced the language for five years. She therefore can impress the Chinese more with her effort.
Many have expectations for improvement in ties between South Korea and China under Park. She comes across as more genteel and open-minded than her no-nonsense predecessor Lee Myung-bak. She is also well-versed in the Chinese language and culture, making her a better fit to connect with the Chinese.
The Chinese media is mostly approving of South Korea’s new female president. They recognize that she read Chinese philosophy and sympathized with Chinese heroes during the tumultuous times in her life. What an impression she would make if she were to formerly address the Chinese audience in their native tongue.
One word of advice to the president: do not try English in China. A new South Korean consulate general to Shanghai in his first official event with the Chinese addressed them in English. The locals were annoyed. The consulate general suffered for a long time to make amends with the locals there.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is championing the “Chinese dream” to usher the Chinese population for a “great revival of the Chinese.” To sell his slogan, the government evokes national pride by reminding the people of the century of humiliation when the Chinese fell under foreign powers in the mid-19th century. The Chinese are thirsty for respect on the international stage. A speech by a foreign state leader in Chinese could be well-timed and effective.
If her Chinese is a little rusty, she could consider reading off a monitor or address just some key parts in Chinese. What matters is not the pronunciation, but the effort.
Her speech in Chinese could also carry meaning in our society. We have been over-obsessive about English since the end of the war. English is emphasized more than any other subject to enter college. A degree from a U.S. university also helps in getting a high-paying job.
Through her speech in Mandarin, she may set an exemplary model to young people that they need to master both English and Chinese to stand at the center of the global stage. I look forward to her speech in Beijing.
*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo specialist on China.
by You Sang-chul