Practicing Mandarin with Strangers in Malaysia

Malaysia is a great place to practice Chinese because there are so many people to practice with! As a tri-cultural country, Malaysia encompasses the Malay, Indian, and Chinese cultures and languages all at once.




My mom and I first got into learning Mandarin Chinese during our three month trip around Taiwan. And after taking a calligraphy class with our couchsurfing hosts in Taipei, our appreciation for the language really grew. We wanted to learn more.


Chinese calligraphy class with our awesome Taipei couchsurfing hosts and friends.

Although most Chinese Malaysians speak Cantonese, they understand Mandarin for the most part. To me, Malaysians are linguistic geniuses; everyone is, at the very least, bilingual. Plus Malaysians, in my four months experience, are incredibly friendly and speak great English.


In Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, we had the opportunity to join a free Meetup group for an English/Mandarin language exchange. A local kid my age from Melaka who was studying in KL came to help out and teach. He introduced us to the basics and beginner phrases in Mandarin. I noted everything down in my notebook. It was a fun first practice since Malaysians are quite relaxed with the four tones in Mandarin (the word “ma” means four different things when spoken with four different intonations!) which are such a puzzle to us still.




While waiting for Grace to finish her lunch one day here in Melaka, Malaysia (where we are currently), I quizzed my mom on the phrase “I don’t understand” in Mandarin. She answered, “Wo bu ming bai” just as a Chinese woman walked past our table. She overheard and immediately picked up on the fact that we were learners. She paused to smile and repeat to us “Wo bu ming bai!” but with the correct tones.


“You can understand me??” my mom asked. “Am I saying ‘I don’t understand’?”


The woman smiled and pointed to and called over a friend behind her. When her friend got to us, she quickly explained the situation to him in Chinese. He turned to us and said, “Wo bu ming bai, yes that means ‘I don’t understand.'” “Yes! You could understand me!” my mom replied. We had a good laugh.


On our walk back from the cafe, it began pouring rain. We took cover in a little mini market where my mom finally decided to buy herself an umbrella (about time!) A local Chinese girl manned the cash register. She looked pretty bored on her phone and we couldn’t go outside yet as the rain was coming down in droves. So my mom took the opportunity to try out her “I don’t know” phrase again.




She helped us get the tones right by pronoucing each word super slowly. The girl’s mom heard us practicing and came out to say hello. She began a conversation with us about Malaysian culture and language. They were both so friendly. As the rain eased, we said goodbye and ventured back outside.


With these two memorable and fun practice sessions, we were not only able to engage with locals, but I don’t think we will ever forget how to say “Wo bu ming bai.” 🙂


(These cool plaques below show why we love Mandarin so much. Each character tells a story!)



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