There are some 20,000 characters in contemporary written Chinese. Knowing about 4,000 is considered educated, while the threshold for standard literacy is 2,000. "Basic" (or just-getting-by) literacy is 200 characters. Chineasy, a new system for learning Chinese characters, promises to get the novice to that level, and it’ll do it using just minimalist posters.
Developed by Taiwanese London-based entrepreneur, software writer, and TED presenter ShaoLan Hsueh, the project applies approachable, bare-bone graphics to a serious education tool. ShaoLan conceived of the idea when she had trouble teaching her children, who were born in the U.K., how to identify and remember Chinese characters. She searched for a method out there—there must be, right?—came up empty, and eventually devised her own. Her efforts led to Chineasy, which she, along with a team of designers, has taken on full-time.
The team is ready to launch the project, and is currently seeking the funds to do so through Kickstarter. With under two weeks left, the campaign has surpassed its original funding goal at £75,000.
Chineasy aims to break, or at least dent, the formidable barrier—what ShaoLan likens to the Great Wall—that keeps Westerners and other non-Chinese natives from learning the language spoken by 15% of the world’s population. It won’t teach you how to speak Chinese per se, but it will give you the basic tools to take it on.
“I see the melding of these two cultures, east and west, as instrumental in creating a more culturally literate world,” ShaoLan tells Co.Design. Chineasy, she says, is a fun step toward doing that. Using custom software she developed, the system narrowed down the 200 most commonly used characters in Chinese literature, culture, and restaurant menus. A knowledge of these characters, ShaoLan explains, will allow you to read 40% of popular Chinese texts. But you don’t have to start with hundreds; Chineasy breaks the learning curve down to the eight most essential characters.
Characters like 口 (“mouth”), and 山 (“mountain”) are the basic building blocks of the Chineasy method. They happen to be pictographs, forms that mimic the objects they represent. Each of the characters, or “radicals,” is then transformed into an illustration with unique features designed to leave an indelible impression in the mind. For example, “person”, 人, already looks somewhat like one of the Beatles jaywalking across Abbey Road. To make the anthropomorphic connection more explicit, ShaoLan and Chineasy’s illustrator Noma Bar add a head and a pair of shoes to the three-pointed figure.
Now you’re never going to forget that radical person. From there, the Chineasy starter symbols can be aggregated to form new words, new characters, and simple phrases. “With very little effort,” ShaoLan says, “learners will be able to read several hundred Chinese characters and phrases and gain a deeper understanding of the historical and cultural influences behind the vocabulary.”
Of course, if it seems too simple to be true, there’s the great wall of a fact that only around 5% of characters used in contemporary China are built from the Chineasy pictographic elements. If and when the system is expanded, it will have to find ways to help users construct and decipher more complex characters when no obvious visual representation is present.
ShaoLan stresses that the method is structured to enable learners to fill in these gaps with the cultural tidbits they’ve picked up along the way. One example of this is 出, meaning “to come or get out.” If you remember, 山 is “mountain,” and so the former character looks like a mountain range superimposed on another. At this point, Chineasy will have explained that in ancient China, an emperor would banish his adversaries into the depths of the mountains, or in the land beyond the tallest mountain peaks.
With the Kickstarter funds, ShaoLan says that the team will be able to execute the 300 characters now on the drawing boards. They will continue to grow the collection—she claims that the method makes up to 1,000 characters possible—while also developing sets of flashcards for learners to use. A Chineasy app is in the works as well, with potential audio aids for pronunciation help. As that Beatle crossing that iconic road that’s now etched in your memory will tell you, sound is important, too.