Is Huntsman Fluent In Chinese? And Does It Matter?

An article at Slate picks apart Jon Huntsman’s brief display of his much-trumpetedly fluent Chinese on The Colbert Report:

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 ….

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.”

At Foreign Policy, Joshua Keating asks whether, possible exaggeration aside, Huntsman’s Mandarin proficiency really matters:

If he were elected, Huntsman’s actual use of Mandarin would likely be limited to telepromptered speeches. Chinese audiences might get a kick out of this, but does anyone really think that if Huntsman spoke the language perfectly, Xi Jinping would be so impressed that he’d forgive America’s debts and let the yuan float on the spot …?

Thinking about this did lead me to the impressively detailed Wikipedia entry on multilingual presidents. Did you know that Martin Van Buren is the only president for whom English was not a first language? (He grew up in a Dutch-speaking community in Kinderhook, New York.) Or that Herbert Hoover was fluent in Chinese, having spent time in China as a young mining engineer? Or that Jimmy Carter read the Bible in Spanish for practice? This doesn’t seem to have played a great role in any of their presidencies, but interesting nonetheless.


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