“I Really Want You To Do My Vice-America President.”

Jon Huntsman claims he’s fluent in Chinese. Is he?

GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman
GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman speaks at George Washington University on Oct. 25, 2011

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty.

To the extent Republican presidential candidate and former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman is known to the public, it is for being “fluent in Chinese.” David Letterman has joked, “Republican Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman is fluent in Chinese. … The last Republican president wasn’t even fluent in English.” A Saturday Night Live spoof of the Republican presidential debates portrayed Huntsman drifting into a stereotyped version of Chinglish while answering questions about his Chinese fluency.

Media reports on the Republican candidates simply assert as a fact that Huntsman is “fluent in Mandarin”—a statement repeated by NPR, the New York Times, CNN, the Boston Herald, the Economist, Esquire, and New Hampshire’s ABC station, among many others. Huntsman’s ads emphasize that he is “Fluent in Mandarin Chinese,” and his website declares (in its Interactive Timeline) that he became “fluent in Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese Hokkien” in 1980. Even the Obama White House declared that “Huntsman speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese.

But is Jon Huntsman really fluent in Chinese?

The answer seems to be no.

When asked on the Colbert Report to speak Chinese, Huntsman spoke one sentence and then “translated” his words as “I just said you ought to consider being my running mate for vice president.” The studio audience roared in approval. Yet in reality, Huntsman’s mangled Chinese would translate as: “I really want you to do my vice-America president.”

In this brief and simple sentence, Huntsman managed to (incorrectly) insert the word America in the middle of the Chinese word for vice president (fu-zong-tong); made a less-than-ideal choice of verbs; and combined my and American vice president in a way that implies (in Chinese) that Huntsman possesses his own personal vice president of the United States.

On Piers Morgan Tonight, Piers Morgan asked Huntsman to speak in Mandarin, and then immediately proclaimed what he heard as “spectacularly good” despite not understanding any of it. (As Huntsman himself responded, “How do you know?”)

A fair translation of Huntsman’s Chinese response to Piers Morgan would be: “Whatever I say, you don’t, you won’t know that much, you will not be so able to understand. I am Mr. Jon Huntsman. I want to be the up-to-next American president.”

Huntsman himself “translated” the first sentence of this as “Whatever I say, you’ll have no idea what it is.” This isn’t a particularly complicated sentence, yet Huntsman struggled to express it, making three halting attempts and never quite getting it right. His attempt to say “next” president (in Chinese, xia-yi-jie) became the strange xia-lai-de. (I could understand Huntsman only because I knew what he was going to say, but none of the Beijing individuals I checked with could understand this sentence even on repeated listens.)

Probably the biggest goof in this sentence was Huntsman’s self-introduction, “I am Mr. Jon Huntsman.” It is even more bizarre to refer to oneself as “Mr.” in Chinese than in English because of the Chinese cultural emphasis on humility. For example, Americans respond to compliments with “Thank you” while Chinese will typically answer “Nali, nali”—literally, “Where, where?” (A joke I’ve heard in China is that Americans claim to “speak” Chinese no matter how few words they understand, while Chinese claim to be unable to speak English no matter how many words they understand.) Calling oneself “Mr.” in Chinese sounds as jarring as calling oneself “the esteemed Mr.” in English.

These mistakes are all the more puzzling because Huntsman spoke only a few sentences total, was given the opportunity to say anything he wanted, and knew ahead of time that his interviewers often ask him to speak in Mandarin. Considering that he could easily prepare (and memorize) a witty comment in Chinese, it is strange that he makes mistakes at all. To reverse the situation, if a foreigner who claimed fluency in English was given the opportunity to say anything in English, and responded (after having time to prepare) by talking about “vice-America presidents,” we probably would not be impressed.

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. (When Piers Morgan gave him free rein to say anything he wanted, Huntsman responded with the kind of basic sentences one learns in first-year Chinese class, such as stating his name and saying that the other person doesn’t understand him.) 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.

Strong evidence of Huntsman’s limited Chinese ability might be the fact that, when he spoke to Chinese audiences and Chinese media as ambassador, he did so in English. In a videotaped message to the Chinese public congratulating the PRC on the 60th anniversary of its founding, Huntsman spoke entirely in English, even though it’s hard to imagine any English-language audience for this message. (This one-minute statement should have been easy to deliver in Chinese, either memorized or read from a teleprompter.) Likewise, a television clip of Huntsman at Beijing’s Tsinghua University shows him talking in English.

At a speech to Alibaba employees, Huntsman spoke for about a minute in extremely simple Chinese (he receives extensive applause for stating that his host “is very young, very handsome, very smart, and very rich”) before switching to English for the remaining 40 minutes of the talk. Interestingly, right before switching to English, Huntsman seems to admit his lack of fluency—he tells the audience that he will use English because “people might not quite understand” his Chinese.

During a 10-minute interview on the Chinese program Yang Lan One on One, Huntsman switched into Chinese only twice, for a total of five words. While speaking about his youngest daughter, Huntsman added the Chinese words my daughter, and when asked about running for president, he added “haven’t decided yet.” It’s not clear why he switched into Chinese for this particular handful of words unless this was all he felt comfortable saying. During a CCTV program on China’s high-speed rail, Huntsman spoke in English except for a sentence announcing (in Mandarin) that America should learn more from China. Even here, however, Huntsman got his word order mixed up.

At the Faith and Freedom Conference, Huntsman spoke one introductory sentence in Chinese: “Thank you for giving me this very good opportunity to speak with other people.” Here, too, the Chinese rings false. For one thing, in Chinese, speakers don’t address an audience as “other people”—this sentence is something a prisoner might say after being released from solitary confinement.

The fact that Huntsman tends to speak only a handful of sentences in Chinese at a time makes it hard to judge his speaking ability, especially since anyone, fluent or not, can memorize a few sentences phonetically. I’ve seen Western businesspeople with minimal Chinese ability make seemingly fluent business pitches to potential Chinese clients because they memorize and practice the pitch. Heck, I’ve even seen Shaq speak Chinese in a commercial for a basketball exhibition. In searching for videos of Huntsman speaking Chinese, multiple clips (here and here) showed him making the exact same stock statement in Chinese—“Right now, America’s only got one governor who can speak Chinese, and that would be me.” He delivers this line well (if slowly), but it appears to be a canned line he used with Chinese audiences. He also likes to get laughs by referring to himself with the slang term for “old man,” but neither of these stock phrases are evidence of fluency.

The final minute of this long (and otherwise English-language) interview on China’s Phoenix Television is a rare instance of Huntsman speaking at length in Chinese. To his credit, only Huntsman’s final sentence is incomprehensible to Mandarin speakers. Even when he speaks correctly, however, Huntsman’s vocabulary is limited, similar to a second-year student in Chinese. He uses the same handful of simple words again and again, telling us, for example, that Chinese people want to know “what kind of country,” “what kind of history,” and “what kind of culture” America has.

Huntsman’s best clip is this one, also from Phoenix Television. Although Huntsman spoke entirely in English during the official sit-down interview, Phoenix Television added a few clips of Huntsman on an airplane, speaking informally in Chinese about his love for motorcycles and Chinese food. Huntsman asks how to say certain words (“How do you say ‘Harley’ motorcycles in Chinese?”) and he repeatedly uses the same limited vocabulary, for example, the phrase you yi-si (“interesting” or “meaningful”) to describe Harleys and also (a couple sentences later) to describe the experience of riding them. Nevertheless, he sounds fluid and comfortable.

Considering Huntsman’s moderate Chinese speaking ability, the better question may be why American media have been so eager to gush praise upon a skill it cannot evaluate. NPR says that Huntsman’s appearance on the Colbert Report (where he asked Colbert to “do my vice-America president”) “did win some points for fluency”; Colbert pronounced it “terrifying.New York magazine calls the seven-second clip of Huntsman at the Faith and Freedom Conference “a brief but impressive reminder of his fluency in two languages, or two more than Sarah Palin.”

Three hundred years ago, a European who called himself George Psalmanazar succeeded in a massive hoax, convincing much of Europe that he was a converted heathen from the (then mysterious) island of Taiwan. Psalmanazar invented outrageous stories about Taiwan (nobles lived underground; husbands ate adulterous wives; people traveled on the trunks of elephants), and he even created an imaginary “Formosan” language. Psalmanazar’s book went through multiple editions, his fake Formosan language was included in language books for decades, and Psalmanazar was even invited to speak about his imaginary language at the Royal Society.

Obviously, Jon Huntsman is no Psalmanazar. Huntsman does speak some Chinese, and he was deeply involved in policy while ambassador to China. But the journalists anointing him as “fluent,” “impressive,” and “spectacularly good” based on a few sentences they don’t understand would probably be equally impressed and amazed at the imaginary languages of George Psalmanazar. Next time, rather than asking Huntsman to say whatever he feels like in Chinese, reporters should test his actual language skills by giving him a China policy question—say, about China’s currency—and ask him to answer in Chinese.