To a non-Chinese speaker (like me), and especially to a Westerner (like me), Chinese is the most impenetrable family of languages on Earth. While there may be only an eighth as many syllables as in English, the tonal variations for each syllable in Standard Chinese impute vastly different meanings. The word “ma” can mean linen, horse, mother or scold, depending on how your tone rises or falls.
So what are you supposed to do if you’re interested in diving into the culture and language spoken by 15% of the world’s population? You could start by learning to read Chinese first–a more attainable goal. But how? There are some 10,000 Chinese characters in common use. Basic literacy, according to the Chinese government, starts at two thousand characters. A solid grasp of a daily Beijing newspaper requires knowing around three thousand. An erudite Chinese reader should recognize five to seven thousand characters.
How about eight? ShaoLan Hsueh, a Taiwanese entrepreneur and venture investor living in London, has developed a visual system for learning to read Chinese, called Chineasy, that transforms cornerstone Chinese characters known as radicals into clever illustrations and stories to teach people a basic vocabulary.
ShaoLan introduced her system in a rousingly well-received TED talk in February in Long Beach, Calif., the video of which should go live in May. She says she’s gotten more than a thousand emails and LinkedIn invites since then from people who want to get started. In the meantime, she has published a Facebook page introducing her concept. (If you go to the Facebook page, you have to start from the bottom of the timeline and work up, because the lesson follows a particular order.) She’s also published a charming placeholder of a Web site here.
“I grew up in Taiwan as the daughter of a calligrapher. Some of my earliest and most treasured memories are of my mother showing me the beauty, shape and form of Chinese characters. Ever since then I have been deeply fascinated by the structure of this incredible language,” says ShaoLan. “Twelve years ago I moved to England and enrolled at Cambridge University. Two years later, I had one degree and two children. As I settled into my new life, I observed how in vogue China was and how eagerly people wanted to embrace the culture – yet they struggled with the language. Even my own children found it daunting. That’s when I started to think about how a new, simpler method for reading Chinese might be useful. By day I worked as an Internet entrepreneur and venture capitalist and by night I was consumed with creating a system to make learning Chinese easy.”
ShaoLan worked with London design firm Brave New World and Israeli illustrator Noma Bar to breathe a little life into eight basic radicals, and then expanded on those by working them into pictographic stories.
Take a look. Here’s “ren,” the radical for person, illustrated with head and feet:
Here’s the character and word for mouth. It’s harder to forget with teeth, tongue and uvula:
Two people make the word follow. Three is a crowd. A person with arms stretched wide is “big.” A person inside a mouth is a prisoner.
Putting the lesson to work, here’s the Chinese-language cover of the Harry Potter novel The Prisoner Of Azkaban. Can you spot the character for prisoner?
Here’s the word for adult, combining big and person:
Here’s the word “adult” on the upper left-hand corner of a cover of a Japanese magazine (Chinese and Japanese share the same character set, more or less). See? You’re already reading Chinese.
Here’s a Chinese ad for Ray Romano’s sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Can you spot the word “everybody” now that you know the word for person?
Here’s the character for tree, with a dollop of vegetation on top for good measure:
Two trees are woods, three make a forest, and there are other logical variations.
Here’s a promo for NBA star Jeremy Lin, also from Taiwan, where Lin in a pretty common name that means forest. Spot it?
To be sure, ShaoLan is taking liberties with the language here. Very few Chinese characters are actual pictographs that reflect the meanings of the words. This is supposed to be good fun, and a way to remember what’s what. “The illustrations are the first step in my method,” she says. “The beautiful images allow people to remember characters easily. We can illustrate hundreds of them. We illustrate all the radicals and lots of the new characters you build from radicals whenever they make sense. Once people recognize the radicals and are trained to ‘decipher’ any given character, they will need to start to understand a bit of Chinese culture and history to comprehend more characters.”
In an example of weaving in a little history, here’s the character for mountain, with Chineasy illustration on top.
Two mountains stacked on top of each other mean ‘to get out’. In ancient times, the Emperor sent his enemies into exile beyond the mountains. Today, exile has come to mean to get out.