From Zuckerberg's Chinese to Lei Jun's English: tech leaders busy learning foreign languages

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 April, 2015, 4:25pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 9:30pm

Tech industry leaders from Silicon Valley to Beijing have at least one shared hobby – learning a foreign language as soon as possible – whether it be Putonghua for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or English for Xiaomi’s Lei Jun.

In China, many tech industry leaders have strong academic backgrounds in computer science but their communication skills may not be as good as their coding, in particularly when they have to speak on the world stage. As Chinese companies increasingly look towards overseas expansion, engagement with global customers has become a must-do thing for many top executives.

Those Chinese tech bosses who do speak fluent English often attract more recognition and exposure in the West than some of their peers. For example, Jack Ma Yun, co-founder and and chairman of Alibaba, China’s top e-commerce firm, is widely recognised as a great public speaker on the world stage. Ma began his career as an English teacher and realised how important English is as a global language way ahead of many of his peers.

Other examples include Sohu’s Charles Zhang Chaoyang and Baidu’s Robin Li Yanhong. Both were educated in the United States before they returned to China to start their respective companies. Baidu’s Li frequently appears on mainstream US media, especially during the firm's earnings season. It might be an easy thing for Li to speak English fluently, given his US educational background, but a very difficult mission for other industry peers.

Last week Xiaomi’s founder and chief executive Lei Jun surprised many fans when he came on stage in New Delhi during the launch of the company's new smartphone for the Indian market. Lei, for the first time in such a public occasion, spoke English throughout his brief presentation, with his language skills proving at least as much of a highlight for the audience as the new device.

"India Mi fans, I am very happy to be in China, to be in India," Lei said, stumbling over his words slightly before announcing that all those in attendance would receive a free Mi Band fitness tracker.

"Are you ok?! Are you ok?!" Lei shouted to the crowd, in a widely shared and gently mocked moment.

Lei's English presentation attracted great attention from the Chinese media, with many comparing his foreign language skill to Zuckerberg holding a Q&A in Putonghua last year at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing. Some Western media joked that Zuckerberg's Chinese was not good enough to speak publicly but others were impressed and said other US entrepreneurs should follow suit.

Many Chinese web companies are backed by Western venture capital funds with an eye to listing in the US, especially on the tech industry-focused Nasdaq market. Such ambitions for global capital fund-raising, as well as business expansion to sell more made-in-China tech products to global consumers require top Chinese executives to speak English. Lei is one who understands the importance of communications, especially with English-speaking audiences.

On Sunday, Wang Sicong, son of China's richest man Wang Jianlin, chairman of Wandan Group, said on his verified Weibo account: “Actually, those Chinese entrepreneurs whose English are not good enough should not go abroad to lose face.”

Wang, educated abroad, wrote the message in Chinese and many readers believed he made this ironic comment in response to Lei’s English presentation in India last week. Wang later removed his comment after receiving criticism that he was too harsh on the Xiaomi boss.

Additional reporting by James Griffiths