Learning Chinese: The memory game; A new way of teaching Chinese ideograms to foreign audiences

Learning Chinese: The memory game; A new way of teaching Chinese ideograms to foreign audiences
Mar 22nd 2014 | From the print edition
Chineasy: The New Way to Read Chinese. By Shaolan Hsueh. Thames Hudson; 192 pages; £12.95. Buy fromAmazon.com, Amazon.co.ukHUNDREDS of millions of children and adults across China are learning English. Yet despite the country’s growing influence, rather fewer people outside the Middle Kingdom are learning Chinese. One obvious reason is that the language is notoriously hard.
Two things make the two main Chinese languages, Mandarin and Cantonese, so fiendish to master. First, they are tonal, so a rising, falling or dipping pitch changes a word’s meaning. Second, they have no alphabet, relying instead on ideograms, or characters, to represent each word. To be literate requires memorising thousands of characters, compared with manipulating no more than 33 letters in most other major languages.
A new book, “Chineasy”, aims to change that by offering an approachable introduction. Shaolan Hsueh, its Taiwanese author, developed her system after watching her British-born children struggle with characters. With striking illustrations by Noma Bar she has conceived an appealing, if not exactly easy, primer for foreign audiences learning Mandarin.
Her method uses a technique already popular with Chinese schoolchildren to turn many of the basic characters on which the language is built into illustrations. The character for “person” is easier to remember if the student imagines a head and two feet on it. “Mouth” gets a tongue and teeth, and “soil” a sprouting leaf. Since many of the more complicated characters combine basic ones, Ms Hsueh’s idea is for learners to create stories for each ideogram. “Person” becomes “big” with the addition of a line, like “a man stretching his arms wide”. This can be turned into “sky” by adding a further line to represent “the spiritual level above man and earth”; and so on.
Many of Ms Hsueh’s engaging explanations will be familiar to those already learning the language: “to sit” is “two people sitting on the soil”; “disaster” is a fire under a roof. The book also brings in history: the character for “beautiful” is made up of “sheep” and “big”, apparently because sheep were considered auspicious in ancient China; “good” combines “woman” and “son” because a good woman was thought to be one who bore a boy.
“Chineasy” succeeds in making these familiar ideas memorable. It gives the beginner, confronted by a seemingly random scrawl of ideograms, somewhere to start in deciphering them. But nothing can downplay the sheer number of characters that anyone studying the language must learn—or the leaps of logic that face them. It is easy to remember that two mouths together mean “shout”, for example, but the word’s pronunciation (xuan) bears no resemblance to that for a single mouth (kou).
At the beginning of “Chineasy”, Ms Hsueh talks of the “Great Wall of Chinese” that stops East and West from communicating effectively. As alluring as it is, her tome cannot break down that wall, or even provide a door through it. But it does at least give keen learners a few footholds as they start to climb. As a Chinese proverb famously notes, even a journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet.

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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