A leading IT company has a team of Chinese speaking support staff in its call centre in Malaysia providing services to the entire Chinese speaking world. Recently the company found that their Chinese speaking team has not been effective in dealing with callers from mainland China. Reason: their staff in KL speak Huayu, and many of the callers from mainland China speak Putonghua; the Huayu speakers understood the questions and queries of the Chinese callers; but when replying, the Chinese callers do not fully understand what the Malaysian Huayu speaker are saying.
The same scene is repeated in the luxury stores in Southeast Asia’s premium shopping malls. Mainland tourists come for these high premium items, and the retailers found their Chinese speaking staff have difficulties getting themselves understood by the Chinese tourists.
Why is this so? Malaysians speak Chinese, don’t they?
Yes, they do. But there are differences between the various streams within the family of Chinese language. In the Greater China area, most people form the impression that the Chinese language spoken is understood by all Chinese. The reality is quite far from the truth.
The family of Chinese Language ( Hanyu) has many derivatives; Putonghua the national language of the People’s Republic of China, Guoyu, the Chinese language used in Taiwan, Huayu, the language of the Chinese ( Huaren) for Malasysia and Singapore. And the Malaysian style Huayu has incorporated dialects ( Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew and Hainan), English and Bahasa Malaysia. The text book and language style learnt by the Chinese community in Malaysia belongs to a more formal and written format; not so oral or colloquia; hence harder to comprehend in a dialogue setting. Because Malaysians speak so many tongues; and the Chinese language spoken at home is often mixed with many dialects and other language; few Malaysians are disciplined to use a single language in their daily communication.
Global Hanyu & Culture College did a review and formatted the difference between Huayu and Putonghua with the following features:
1. Intonation; Huayu doesn’t speak with the 4 tones.
2. Pronunciation: Malaysians often make errors in some key pronunciation.
3. Mixed grammer patterns
4. Different regional vocabulary.
Many speakers of Huayu seek help to refine and to get themselves make the shift to standard Putonghua. Many asked how long would it take and what is their chance of success? Before we answer these questions; we must recognised the following condition:
1. A spoken language is like an operating system, like an Apple IOS Versus Android. It is all about habit. When you are used to one system, it is embedded in your brain which controls your tongue; if you want to use another system, new habits must be developed to replace the old one. Changing habit takes commitment, awareness and effort.
2. In making the shift the right environment helps. An example would be you lose your Apple phone and you are now forced to operate on Android. Left without choice, over a sufficiently long period of time, you would make the switch to the new operating system. So often times, success arise from necessity, not out of choice.
3. You need to be inspired. One has to be inspired by the beauty of the language and are draw to it; wanting to imitate and speak in that way. Just like French, many like the language because it sounds nice, it is musical and seem to show style.
While we recognise that it takes a lot of effort and commitment to achieve fluency in Putonghua; there are people who have managed to do that. Those Malaysian Chinese who have spent time studying in China have done that, immersion does help to break the habit. Their strategy of success include the following steps:
1. Recognise and understand the differences of the two language,
2. Run through all the key sounds of all the characters and find out your pattern of error
3. Once you know your pattern of error, practise on the correct pronunciation and tone; be highly aware and make it a point to speak right all the time; all the time. Be very discipline not to let yourself slip;
4. Watch Mainland TV, read newspaper and magazine reports from the mainland, now they are widely available on the website — you create your own virtual language environment;
5. Subject yourself to test weekly. Get yourself a mainland Putonghua teacher/mentor; via skype, log on each week to do a test, working your errors down to zero.
6. Continue to learn to speak with the mainland accent; learn to speak culturally and beautifully. Switch to reading all articles from China website and watch Mainland Chinese dramas and TV Serials. This helps to be acclimatise into the Putonghua culture.
Those who have succeeded report that they need between 6 months to a year, depending on how intense your conversion goals are. No matter how difficult it is; just like losing weight, it can be done.
Today standard Mandarin Proficiency has become a competitive advantage. Can Malaysian luxury brand shops up sell mainland tourist, can Malaysia become a Call Center for Greater China will depend on the Standard Mandarin Proficiency of its Chinese speaking population.