I’m A ‘Banana’

Jul 25, 2014 1 Min Read

No excuse not to learn Mandarin

For the uninitiated, in this part of the world, you are labelled a “banana” when you can’t utter a sentence in Mandarin.

You know, being “yellow on the outside, white on the inside”, i.e. a Malaysian Chinese with Western disposition who is unable to speak, read or write in Mandarin?

Well, ask anyone and they can tell you that Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to master.

With the emergence of China as the awakened “dragon” in the world economy, we cannot deny that the world at large is recognising the importance of the Chinese language.

Wong Chih Khuan, a trained Chinese language teacher and co-founder of Malaysia Learners Consultancy Sdn Bhd (MLC Sdn Bhd), passionately shares her love of the Chinese language and culture for interested businesspeople and individuals.

No turning back

“I started giving private tutoring sessions while studying at Universiti Malaya in 2004 to support my studies. Before I knew it, through word of mouth and friends introducing friends, I found myself teaching Mandarin to a group of employees from Tourism Malaysia who was to be sent to Shanghai for an expo,” reminisces Wong when asked how it all started.

Since then, Wong’s clientele has expanded to other government and private corporations such as the Malaysia Royal Navy, Edaran Tan Chong Automobile, Affin Investment Bank, Daewoo International, Petronas LNG and Telekom Malaysia.

“One thing leads to another. Eventually, MLC came about in 2013 to meet the increasing requests for small groups and private lessons to learn Mandarin for business or daily conversations. We cater mainly for teenagers and working adults,” continues Wong, a certified Chinese language teacher recognised by the China government.

“We ensure top quality by incorporating various and effective educational aids to ensure continuous fun, practical and interactive learning,” explains Wong, currently doing her masters in Chinese Studies at University Tunku Abdul Rahman.

When asked how her classes are conducted, she replies:

“Through a series of lectures, interactive exercises, role-playing, tongue twisters, songs, video clips, dialogue-reading, drama and classroom games, of course! As you can see, we try to engage their five senses through these methods. For effectiveness, we keep our classes small so everyone gets an opportunity to speak and practise.”

Teaching in USIM

The decline of Mandarin. Says who?

China officially became Malaysia’s largest trading partner in 2010.

Even though many Malaysian Chinese have not been able to communicate properly in written and spoken Chinese (like myself), interest in the language has picked up again.

The reality is more parents (both Chinese and non-Chinese) are sending their children to Chinese schools in Malaysia. From Wong’s personal observation, she has seen an increase of student intakes in Chinese schools by 30%–50% in the last decade.

When asked the reason why non-Chinese overseas seem more eager to learn Chinese (like some of the non-Chinese single men contestants participating in the Perfect Match reality show), Wong explains that from where they are, their education system has always emphasised a worldview and globalisation. As such, this group is always ahead of world trends.

Separating language from culture? Wise move, not!

What is unique about Wong’s language centre is that she delves in the Chinese culture and the history of China in her lessons.

“Chinese is a unique and beautiful language. I can say that language is actually a product of a long history and rich cultural background. It would not make sense to teach only the language and leave out the cultural aspect of it. It would not be complete to learn just the language per se,” elaborates Wong.

“In order for you to appreciate the beauty of the Chinese language, you need to understand the origin and ‘stories’ behind each Chinese character. Even the old Chinese idioms and sayings tell us the wisdom of our forefathers.”

“Moreover, positive communication with potential Chinese clients also means you acknowledge their customs, beliefs, and do’s and don’ts. And, do you know that Chinese business people observe their business partners in detail? Most times, you make a good or bad impression on them purely by what you do, not what you say,” says Wong.

Where and how to start?

“It is never too late to start learning Mandarin! It has nothing to do with age, but all about your commitment and determination to learn a new language,” Wong advises.

“In fact, the oldest student I have come across so far is a 76-year-old woman. She beat a 20-year-old college-going classmate hands down in terms of mastering the language,” muses Wong.

When asked if we could learn the language on our own by purchasing “how-to” books, Wong replies:

“I would not recommend you learning Chinese on your own, knowing that it can be quite a tricky and complicated language to start with. Instead, get yourself a very capable tutor who understands your needs best. Communicate what your needs are before you commit.

A good language tutor is one who is passionate in teaching and sharing his or her knowledge and experiences. He or she ought to have the versatility to handle students from various backgrounds professionally. Your tutor should be able to help you build a strong language foundation and walk you through the most difficult part of the language until you are able to master it quite significantly,” opines Wong.

Business Mandarin Program for Affin Investment Bank in 2011


If groups of people from different creed and other parts of the world (think TV host Baki Zainal of 8TV and former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd respectively) are admiring and appreciating the Chinese culture and language, should not it be for you and me?

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

While writing this article, the song ‘Yellow’ by Coldplay kept playing in Lay Hsuan’s head. She thinks it has to do with bananas and homemade banana ice creams. For feedback, drop her an email via layhsuan.lim@leaderonomics.com

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