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With Chineasy, entrepreneur aims to make learning Chinese fun

2014/02/21 19:59:33

By Christie Chen, CNA Staff Reporter

Internet entrepreneur ShaoLan Hsueh first developed her picture-based method of learning Chinese characters in the hopes that it would help her UK-raised children pick up the language.

Three years later, the Taiwanese mother of two has found that her "Chineasy" program now has a huge fan following, with tens of thousands of users coming to her Facebook page to learn new words and phrases and ask their questions about learning Chinese.

"I hope to help those with a fear of the Chinese language to get rid of those feelings," Hsueh told CNA Thursday.

The visual system she developed won the Life-Enhancer of the Year award from the UK's "Wallpaper* Magazine," beating out high-profile nominees like Google Inc.'s pioneering smartglasses Google Glass and Singapore Airlines' first and business class seats.

Chineasy has also been shortlisted for London-based Design Museum's Designs of the Year 2014.

Harper Design will be bringing out a print and e-book version of "Chineasy: The New Way to Read Chinese," and an interactive app is also on the way, the busy author said.

The Chineasy method turns characters and their radicals -- the smaller elements that make up each Chinese character -- into illustrations to make them less intimidating and more memorable for learners of Chinese as a foreign language. It starts with 12 basic radicals, or as Hsueh calls them, "building blocks," before teaching characters and then phrases built with them.

Learning characters by their radicals is nothing new; that is how millions in Taiwan and China learn them, akin almost to spelling English words with letters. But what separates Hsueh's system from rote classroom learning is her eye-catching illustrations, creative story-telling and touch of humor.

For example, in Chineasy, the radical for "person" (ren) -- a wishbone-shape made from lines that start opposite one another and move up to converge at the top -- has had a bright red face added on top and red shoes at the bottom to clearly link the character to its meaning. For the radical for "mouth" (kou) -- a square shape -- teeth and a tongue have been added on the inside.

As if the system weren't appealing enough already, it helps that the illustrations are offered for free on Hsueh's website and Facebook.

A team of around a dozen workers, including illustrators and animators, has worked to illustrate some 450 characters and phrases so far -- a third of what Hsueh plans to accomplish, at least for now.

Hsueh left Taiwan for the U.K. in 2001 to study at the University of Cambridge. She ended up settling down there, working as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist in the country while tending to her two children, now aged 9 and 11.

Years ago, she found herself struggling to teach her native language to her children.

"They thought it was too hard and were not interested," said Hsueh. "I tried many ways but none of them worked, so I thought maybe I should think of something myself."

What she came up with has received worldwide attention from the likes of the Financial Times and BBC, which caught wind of her unique approach following a TED talk she gave in California last year. To date, the video of her talk has gained millions of views.

It is difficult to develop an appealing illustration for use in learning, and Hsueh and her collaborators sometimes had to go through 20 versions of an illustrated character before finding one that is right.

"Giving birth to a character is like giving birth to a child," said Hsueh, who credited her artistic inclination to her mother, a calligrapher, and father, a ceramic artisan.

Though she is certainly interested in promoting her method for learning characters, Hsueh is not looking to replace traditional ways of learning the language.

"I still hope most people will continue with how they were learning because there is a reason those ways exist," she said, adding that her main goal is to introduce and inspire an interest in Chinese to help them learn faster.

The author is currently working on her second Chineasy book, after which she hopes to put her energies into developing methods to help learn proper pronunciation in Mandarin.

"I don't have an answer yet" for how to teach the sounds, she said. "But I hope for one in the future because I want my children to keep learning."