A Visual Way to Learn Chinese

Discover ShaoLan Hsueh’s easy approach to memorizing Chinese characters.

ShaoLan Hsueh can give you plenty of reasons to learn to read Chinese.

“There are 1.3 billion people you can communicate with,” says the creator of Chineasy, an app that makes learning Chinese characters considerably less daunting.

Chineasy is based on a innovative teaching method that Hsueh, who hails from Taiwan, developed over the past seven years. Her TED talk describing the approach has been viewed more than 3 million times.

Each Chinese character is accompanied by an illustration. You can also read about the word’s etymology and hear its pronunciation.

To make Chinese characters easier to remember, Hsueh broke them down into their component parts. What started out as a few scribbles on a napkin evolved into a fully realized teaching method, in which the meaning of each character is helpfully illustrated by artist Noma Bar. In the Chineasy app, the character for fire, for example, is depicted with a flame around it.

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.

“I liked his clean work,” Hsueh says of 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.”

The app walks you step-by-step through numerous Chinese characters. “We have populated 200 levels that will teach you more than 1,000 words. And we will keep adding content,” explains Hsueh. On this journey, you’re led by an animated guide named Bao (meaning “dumpling”).

The character for “dog” is helpfully embellished by illustrator Noma Bar.

For each character in the app, you can listen to the Mandarin pronunciation of the word and tap to read about its etymology. According to Hsueh, the story behind a character helps you understand how the language evolved—as well as how it might have influenced people’s beliefs.

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

The app has 200 levels that teach more than 1,000 words.

Despite considering herself “a bad student,” Hsueh managed to write four best-selling books while completing her MBA in Taiwan in the ’90s. These days, she lives in Central London with her daughter, 15, and son, 13. Her partner is a professor at MIT, and her daughter has already published her first book.

Chineasy explains how “puppy” is comprised of the characters for “small” and “dog.”

Hseuh’s vision for Chineasy is about more than simply teaching people to recognize Chinese characters.

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,” she says. “There are lot of things we can do to combat that anxiousness.”

Hsueh believes Chineasy can be part of the solution. “I would like to play a role to bridge the gap between the East and the West.”

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