The woman who's widening your world

Need a good reason to learn Chinese? How about more than a billion reasons? “There are 1.3 billion people you can communicate with, and they are becoming a superpower,” says ShaoLan, founder of brand new app Chineasy – a tool for learning to read Chinese. So, she jokes with a wry smile, learning the language is “quite useful”.

Chineasy is based on a clever teaching method that ShaoLan, who hails from Taiwan, has personally developed over the last seven years. “My children were born in the UK and I couldn’t find a way to inspire them to learn about their own culture and legacy,” she explains. Chineasy was her solution.

There are 1.3 billion people you can communicate with, and they are becoming a superpower.

What started as a few drawings scribbled on a napkin turned into ShaoLan breaking down hundreds of Chinese characters into their component parts, to make them accessible.

The result is a beautifully designed method in which the characters take on meaning via illustrations by artist Noma Bar. For example, the character for fire is depicted with a flame around it, to help you remember.

“I liked his clean work,” says ShaoLan of her collaboration with Bar. “If I drew everything in Chinese style people would go, 'Oh no, it’s something foreign'. It has to be very accessible across different cultures and linguistic backgrounds.”

ShaoLan's books are already a great success. Her TED talk describing her method has been viewed more than three million times. With the Chineasy app, though, she hopes to reach an even wider audience.

The app takes you on a step-by-step journey to understanding the characters, led by an animated helper called Bao (meaning dumpling). “We have populated 200 levels that will teach you more than 1,000 words. And we will keep adding content,” explains ShaoLan.

Chineasy teaches you to read Chinese using illustrated characters.

You can listen to the pronunciation of each word in Mandarin and tap the characters to reveal information about their etymology. “When I tell stories people understand how the language evolved and how that influences people’s psychology and beliefs,” says ShaoLan.

The daughter of a calligrapher and a professor of ceramic art, ShaoLan remembers being under huge academic pressure as a child. “It’s the whole society in Asia, not just my parents,” she says.

Despite calling herself “a bad student”, while doing her MBA studies in Taiwan in the 90s, ShaoLan wrote four bestselling books. “I used the royalties I received – quite a bit of money – to found an internet company,” she explains.

At age 31 ShaoLan moved to the UK to study at Cambridge University. “At the time I knew I was going to have a baby, so instead of just having maternity leave, I wanted to use the time better.” Her daughter was born 10 days after her International Studies course started. “I had two weeks off and went back with a nurse.”

These days she lives in central London with her daughter, 15, and her son, 13. It’s a high-flying family. ShaoLan's current partner is a professor at MIT and her daughter has already published her first book.

But her work is not finished. ShaoLan's vision is much greater than just teaching people to recognise a few Chinese characters. “I would love people to reach basic literacy but the bigger agenda here is promoting cultural appreciation,” she says.

I would love people to reach basic literacy but the bigger agenda here is promoting cultural appreciation.

“There is an increasing tension between China and the rest of the world. They are getting more powerful and people are becoming more anxious. There are lot of things we can do to combat that anxiousness,” she says.

“There are 300 million Chinese people learning English at this point in time. In America there are just 200,000 people who can speak Chinese and in the UK, fewer. The effort is one sided.”

ShaoLan believes she and Chineasy are part of the solution. “I would like to play a role to bridge the gap between the East and the West.” And if anyone can do it, she can.

Check out Apple Podcasts to hear more from ShaoLan in a special episode of The Guilty Feminist, to mark International Women's Day.


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