It is one of the world’s toughest languages but after a few minutes using a simple picture system devised by London entrepreneur ShaoLan Hsueh, Oliver Thring was grasping the basics
Towards the end of last year, impulsively and bafflingly, I bought a couple of teach-yourself Mandarin books and a repeat-after- me CD, and tried to learn the language. I was beguiled by the delicate dancing calligraphy of the characters, their boxes, grids, sweeps and strokes. I learnt the singsong basics of pronunciation. Chinese is hard: most of its principles are brain-scramblingly different from Indo-European languages.
The US Foreign Service Institute ranks it among the most difficult tongues for English speakers to learn, and says you need 2,200 hours to become proficient. (French, Afrikaans and Romanian require fewer than 600 hours.) Being good enough to order noodles or ask the cab driver for the Forbidden City requires the methodical diligence of a medieval scribe.
So I gave up. And that might have been that, except for a book published next month that may revolutionise the teaching of Chinese round the world. Chineasy returns to the most fundamental elements of Mandarin — the pictograms that were probably the birth of all writing. The Mandarin character for “man” is a simple stick figure; “fire” some crudely drawn flames. Chineasy develops these glyphs into simple pictures, making it instantly easier to learn them.
Its creator is ShaoLan Hsueh, a slightly terrifying Taiwan-born entrepreneur and, I suspect, a borderline genius. “I pretended I was a caveman in ancient China,” she tells me when we meet. “I see the sun: I’m going to draw the sun. I see the rocks, the mountains, and I see my child.” Last February she gave a six-minute TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk explaining Chineasy: she claims that more than 3m people have since watched it.
She is on time to the second when she arrives at Mark’s Bar in central London. In a leather dress and a black Dior overcoat, she looks like a beautiful and dangerous Chollywood villain. She explains she developed the system by designing a fantastically complicated 3D “engine” — a sort of astral map that grouped the characters thematically and visually. Then she employed designers, illustrators and — latterly — film makers and code writers to draw the pictures and animations to accompany them.
The result brings a cool and elegant logic to a complicated task. Drawing leaves round the character for “tree” makes it intuitively memorable. Better still, many Mandarin phrases are compounds, building on simpler ones. “Fire” next to “mountain” means “volcano”; two fires on top of each other means “burning hot”. The glyphs for “man” and “tree” together mean “rest”. “In those days there were no Starbucks so people laid against the trees when they wanted to rest,” says Hsueh.