A Chinese businessman's awkward English

Youku screenshot of Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun speaking at a launch event in India Image copyright Youku
Image caption A Chinese businessman's speech in English has been viewed nearly half a million times on Youku

Is it brave or embarrassing to speak in a language you're not quite fluent in? That's the question being asked in China after a famous businessman gave a short speech in English.

It was a pretty standard opening line: "Hello. How are you?" But the fact that it was delivered in English by one of China's most prominent businessmen immediately captivated the audience. Lei Jun, founder and chief executive of phone company Xiaomi, was in India for a launch event last week.

He carried on: "I'm very happy to be in China ..." before correcting his mistake to laughter and applause. "To be in India!" he continued. The chief executive of a company frequently referred to as "'China's Apple'" (it's the world's third-largest maker of smartphones) then made a few more short remarks in English while showing off a new product. At one point he loudly and awkwardly shouted to the audience: "Are you OK? Are you OK?" - and the phrase quickly became a talking point online.

Lei's English was more or less understandable, albeit heavily accented, but the speech sparked a huge discussion in China about the merits of trying to speak foreign languages. Video of the event has been viewed more than 450,000 times on the Chinese site Youku. More than a thousand people commented - and not all were favourable. "Simply appalling!" read one comment, while another said: "His English is so bad that he shouldn't have spoken in it at all."

But other Chinese social media users argued that Lei deserved praise for his attempt. "Even foreigners will try to be friendly with us by trying to speak in Chinese. What kind of thinking is that to say Lei has lost face by speaking in less-than-fluent English?" wrote one user on Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblogging service. Another said: "To be honest, I laughed while watching the video. But Lei's seriousness and humbleness are very impressive."

Comparisons were also inevitably drawn to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's speech in Mandarin to a Chinese audience last year. "Does Bill Gates speak fluent Mandarin? Is Mark Zuckerberg's Mandarin pronunciation that accurate? It is valuable for these big bosses to try," read one comment.

Kerry Allen, an analyst with BBC Monitoring, noted that Sina Weibo - the largest weibo site - promoted a blog post titled "Why is it when Chinese people speak English it's so unbearable to listen to?" which mentioned Lei's speech.

"It basically mocks poor pronunciation and the fact that English is taught in such a structured way that people end up sounding like robots," Allen says, noting that English is taught as the second language in many Chinese schools.

Lei himself has taken to his Weibo page to express surprise at the online interest. He posted: "I went on stage and spoke several sentences in English only to entertain Indian Xiaomi fans. I have never thought video of the speech will spread to China so quickly. Everyone in China is laughing.

"Now that there are more and more Xiaomi fans overseas, I really should improve my English so that I won't disappoint everyone!" he wrote.

Blog by Jeff Li and Samiha Nettikkara

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