I came across this TED Talk a while ago and thought it deserved a place on the blog since it is so relevant to what I’m studying! In it, ShaoLan Hsueh discusses her intuitive method of learning Chinese characters, which she calls “Chineasy”. Have a watch:

You can learn more about Hsueh’s background on the TED website. And you can check out the Chineasy website as well if you’re interested.

It’s important to remember that since she is from Taiwan, Hsueh is actually using traditional characters instead of the simplified characters that are used in mainland China. This is apparent when you look at the character “door”.

Hsueh uses the traditional variant, that looks like this: 門

As opposed to the simplified version that looks like this: 门

She also mentions that if you know 1,000 characters, you have achieved basic literacy in Chinese. And, according to Hsueh, if you can recognize the most basic 200 characters, than you have achieved “basic comprehension”, enabling you to read menus, most signs, etc… Personally, I think Hsueh has a relatively low bar for what “basic comprehension” means. I hope this doesn’t put anyone off learning Chinese, but I have studied formally for five years and probably recognize somewhere between 1,500 – 2,000 characters, and I still struggle with reading menus and newspapers, just because of the sheer volume of characters in use today.

In any case, even though I disagree with her benchmarks for success, I really like that Hsueh has attempted to make Chinese written language somewhat more accessible to foreigners. I find that many people who are unfamiliar with Asian languages find them intimidating, and I applaud anyone who tries to make Chinese language fun.


6 thoughts on “Chineasy?

  1. I have mixed feelings about her. As many others have pointed out, her method is FAR from new or innovative. It’s probably just the first well publicised effort at using this kind of mnemonic system for learning Chinese, as the language is “relatively” in vogue for the first time. I have also heard that the resources themselves mix scripts to be best fit the images, granted this is is made clear in the books, but seems contrived and counter productive in the long run. (In fact she does so in the video as well, she uses 众.) I haven’t got the books but I do have a set of flashcards given to me by a friend. They are OK but not great. I do think she misrepresents the benchmarks for success as you have said yourself, this is nigh on unforgivable. Chinese is a marathon (like all languages really but a little more so than the usual suspects), there’s nothing more disheartening than getting to what you think is the finish line and then seeing 5 extra miles stretching out before you. Nevertheless, I have to agree with you that anything that helps dispel the heinous myth that Chinese is “just too hard” and “only for people with a talent for languages,” is probably a good thing in the long run!

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Lee. I agree with you that mixing traditional and simplified characters just adds to the confusion (having studied both of them myself at different times in my life, I’ve decided it’s better to pick one and stick with it for as long as possible to minimize confusion). I hadn’t noticed the 众 mix-up that she uses in the video before you pointed it out, so thank you! Another problem with her system is that the icons she creates as mnemonic devices are her own invention, and may or may not be related to the actual historical development of each Chinese character as a pictograph. In that sense I think her work is ahistorical, and, as you said, contrived. Have you looked into other methods of learning Chinese characters that use pictures as mnemonic tools? I’m curious as to whether there is an existing system that is slightly more true to the original intention and historical evolution of the characters…

  2. Hi, I hope you’ll excuse my replying over a year late, I so seldom use google+ etc.
    I’m afraid I haven’t found another system for learning characters in a more logical fashion. I myself learned over an extended period of time in a very haphazard manner, mostly from watching TV shows with subtitles and messaging people on Wechat. It was surprisingly effective but I was at college (not studying Chinese) and I had a lot of free time.
    I know that many people suggest learning full form characters because the etymology is largely intact so I suppose that might be a way to go. At any rate, learning the radicals was a major turning point for me because it unlocks the internal logic of the character. Theirs usually a phonetic or semantic clue that you can latch onto to aid in memorisation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s