A New Way to Learn Chinese: Entrepreneur ShaoLan Hsueh aims to bridge the gap between East and West by teaching Westerners how to read Chinese

A New Way to Learn Chinese

Entrepreneur ShaoLan Hsueh aims to bridge the gap between East and West by teaching Westerners how to read Chinese


March 14, 2014 8:37 p.m. ET

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Entrepreneur and author ShaoLan Hsueh aims to teach English speakers how to start reading Chinese in under 10 minutes. See an excerpt for the video that was produced for her Kickstarter campaign.

Entrepreneur and author ShaoLan Hsueh thinks that English-speakers can start learning to read Chinese in less than 10 minutes. The language, she says, has more than 20,000 written characters, which most students in China learn by rote memorization. Ms. Hsueh’s new book, “Chineasy,” aims to simplify the symbols with colorful pictograms. “I’m not expecting people to be able to write a university dissertation after reading my book,” she says. But it could mean the difference between ordering a steak or a snake from a Chinese menu.

After a TED conference talk in spring 2013 that has since drawn some 2 million online viewers, Ms. Hsueh, 42, launched what she calls a “social movement” to bridge the gap between the East and West by making written Chinese more accessible. Many characters were constructed to depict the words they stood for—the one for person, for example, looks somewhat like a stick figure walking. Her book takes some of those characters and overlays simple designs on top of them to help readers make the connections between the symbol and the word. Learning about those connections, she says, reveals important nuances of Chinese culture and history.

Over green tea in the lobby restaurant of her Manhattan hotel, the Taipei-born, London-based Ms. Hsueh describes why the symbol for the verb “to come” looks like wheat—because wheat used “to come” from Europe. The character representing the word “woman” was originally supposed to depict a wife bending down before her husband.

Some words build on one or more characters put together, so once you master a handful of basic building blocks, she says, learning new characters becomes much easier. Two woman characters together mean “argument,” and three in a row means “adultery.” “It shows gender inequality,” says Ms. Hsueh. Why do two women mean “argument?” In ancient China, “they had three or four generations all underneath the same roof, and the women, they argue,” she explains. “Any middle-upper class Chinese man had multiple wives.” Ms. Hsueh’s grandfather had at least two wives who all lived together, for example. But, as she herself saw in that case, “it was very peaceful,” she says with a smile.

Ms. Hsueh’s book arrives as more U.S. students are learning Chinese. Nancy Rhodes of the Center for Applied Linguistics, a national language research and resource nonprofit, says that the percentage of secondary schools teaching Mandarin has increased from 1% in 1997 to 4% in 2008 (the most recent year available). Meanwhile, the percentage of schools teaching French dropped from 64% to 46% in the same period, especially as schools face budget cuts. The number of enrollments in college Chinese language classes was more than 60,000 in 2009, up from around 34,000 in 2002, according to the Modern Language Association.

Born in 1971 to a calligrapher mother and a ceramic artist father, Ms. Hsueh grew up in Taipei. She started a series of well-received Microsoft user manuals at age 22 while studying for her M.B.A. Soon after, she co-founded an Internet company. In 2001, she moved to Britain, where she earned a graduate degree in international relations from Cambridge. Still interested in software and technology, she went on to become a venture capitalist in London. “My career has been using my left brain much more,” she says. But decades after growing up around her parents’ artwork, she says she is now “connecting the dots much more and connecting my life experience in the East and the West.”

That effort began when her children, now 9 and 11, were born. They spoke English as their first language and weren’t interested in learning their mother’s native tongue. “They said, ‘It’s not cool,’ ” she remembers. “I was so frustrated.”

After she put her children to bed, she would stay up late on her computer trying to find a simple way to teach them to read the language. Ms. Hsueh discovered that many words stem from eight to 12 basic characters, such as a square symbol meaning “mouth,” that other words and phrases expand upon. For example, two mouth-shaped characters together mean “shout.” And the characters for “person” and “tree” together mean “rest.” Think of it this way, she says: A shady tree would have been a good place to take a break in ancient China.

Ms. Hsueh opens her laptop to show an intricate heat map she built of characters and phrases stemming from these simple forms. She used that map as the basis for teaching her children written Chinese, drawing the symbols on napkins for them.

This was all a hobby until she mentioned her system to an organizer of the TED conference, where she had been a regular attendee since 1999. That led to her talk in 2013. Within days, she says, she had thousands of emails from people asking her to expand the concept. She then hired illustrators to make “charming and innocent illustrations” to give her concept an entertaining and easily understandable design.

Last August, Ms. Hsueh raised more than $300,000 on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter—well over the $125,000 that she originally asked for—to build a second set of characters and phrases and create a Chineasy iPhone app and online education materials. Now she has a team of 12 full-time and freelance workers, including designers, animators and developers. She also has a website and a Facebook page where community members can answer each other’s questions about her method. “It can’t be an almighty curriculum,” she says.

She hopes that her system will help to build “mutual understanding and communication” between East and West. “Language says so much about someone’s mentality, about why they make things a certain way and why they behave a certain way,” she says. In written Chinese in particular, the “characters say so much more than the spoken language,” she says. And there’s hope that foreigners can learn: Whereas learning the word “sun” in English means imprinting the letters s-u-n on your mind, the word for sun in Chinese requires only imagining its shape.

Ms. Hsueh is now working on a follow-up book that will expand the characters and phrases that she currently teaches. She likes to think that her system goes beyond simply teaching language. “It’s a concept that nothing is really that difficult as long as we find a way of communicating,” she says. “You just need to put [in] a little effort, then you can really understand quite quickly.”

Her ultimate goal is to change people’s perception of China and give them a greater appreciation of its culture. “When people travel to China and they have to deal with the Chinese, they automatically shut down because they think it’s such a mysterious country,” she says. “That image is totally unnecessary.”


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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