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Why a female tech entrepreneur invented a new way to learn Chinese

  • Chineasy founder Shaolan Hsueh struggled to teach her UK-born kids Chinese with traditional materials, so she came up with her own
  • Now she hopes the award-winning language platform can bridge gaps between East and West
PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 January, 2019, 6:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 January, 2019, 7:45pm

Shaolan Hsueh’s educational background may be in science and international affairs, but there is no denying the creative streak in her DNA.

The 47-year-old Taiwan-born entrepreneur is best known for her Chinese language learning system Chineasy, which breaks down the often-complicated characters into simple, easy-to-remember pictograms: a king, queen, a blazing fire, a square-shaped mouth, each with the Chinese character for the word at the centre.

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Hsueh, a confessed geek, relied on visual designers to create the pictograms, but she herself comes from a family with strong artistic tendencies. Her grandfather, Lin Pau-chia, is considered the godfather of ceramic arts in Taiwan, while her mother is a calligrapher. Her father, though a mathematician and engineer by training, also took up ceramics. Hsueh grew up watching them mould and glaze vases.

Instead of following in her family’s footsteps, Hsueh started out in another direction, and her life took many unexpected twists and turns before the idea for Chineasy came along.

“When I was young, I felt like a black sheep. I wanted to study science and I didn’t want to do anything artistic,” Hsueh says. “I grew up in a family that didn’t buy art. Everyone was a creator.”

Hsueh graduated from National Taiwan University in 1993 with a degree in agricultural chemistry, then landed a job in a bank.

“When I got that job, my family was so proud of me because [the bank] only hired a few people that year. They thought my life had turned around,” she says.

Much to their surprise, however, Hsueh quit abruptly after three months. “I learned a lot but I didn’t feel like it was me. It wasn’t my calling.”

She enrolled in an MBA programme at National Chengchi University in Taipei, and soon had her first taste of success.

Hsueh and fellow members of a student computer club each decided to write a book. The programmers and developers wrote about C++, a programming language, while she decided to produce a user manual for Microsoft – but one unlike any that had been done before.

“I approached it from the viewpoint of a beginner, and in each chapter drew on aspects of life that were important to me. Chapter one was a love letter; chapter two referenced the French film director Luc Besson; the next chapter, Haruki Murakami, the Japanese writer,” Hsueh says. “It turned out to be an unlikely bestseller.”

The book was bought by Microsoft, and every copy of its Office software sold in Taiwan in 1996 came with a copy of Hsueh’s manual. She wrote three more similar books after that, all of which garnered similar success.

Hsueh ploughed her royalties into a venture called PAsia, which functioned as a start-up incubator before such terminology existed.

“That was 1995, when Amazon had just started, Google didn’t exist, and the internet was very slow.”

Hsueh and her peers experimented with instant messengers and dating and e-commerce websites, feeling their way around the early internet. “We didn’t know what to do because we were too young and it was too early,” she recalls.

When my daughter was born, I spoke with her only in Chinese. By the time she was three, she would look blank and only reply in English. It was even worse with my son
Shaolan Hsueh

It was a roller-coaster ride, struggling to pay the rent, then being approached with an offer of funding by one of the world’s largest IT companies. Before she knew it, Hsueh was walking out of a meeting with Intel with a US$1 million investment.

She took a year-long sabbatical in 2001, spending the time travelling to figure out her next move in life.

“I wanted to acquire new skills that I didn’t have time for when I was working,” she says. “I was scared to death of heights, and I felt it was uncalled for. I wanted to find a way to get over it.”

To do so she learned rock climbing in Thailand, trained for a paragliding licence in New Zealand, and mastered skiing on the slopes of France, Switzerland and Italy.

“That was when I learned to overcome my fear of heights, and also managed to see the most beautiful views that I could never have seen without going to such high altitudes.”

She credits her French skiing coach with teaching her another important life lesson: self-discipline. “Your posture is not correct. What are you doing? If you don’t do it perfectly, you’re practising mistakes,” he told her.

“That was a very serious wake-up call,” Hsueh says. “That’s the attitude you need to do something properly.”

After her year off, Hsueh settled in Britain, where she studied for a master’s degree in international economics at Cambridge University.

“The requirement for English proficiency was very high because it was international studies. Most students were diplomats and people in foreign policy,” she says.

Determined to brush up her English, she subscribed to The Economist.

“At the beginning, I underlined every word [I didn’t understand]. That meant half of the magazine. Another way I learned was from watching movies. I would watch the same one again and again, until I understood every word, every piece of slang and accent.”

When she turned 40 – then a single mother of two – Hsueh celebrated by going travelling again. One of her trips was to Botswana, where she got to grips with African traditions.

“One night [our group] was separated in the middle of nowhere in the desert. We were not allowed to sleep. We had to meditate and reflect. It’s a tradition the tribe followed. They have to recall memories of their ancestors and connect with Mother Nature,” she says.

Returning from her sabbatical with renewed vigour, Hsueh was faced with a problem common among the Chinese diaspora – figuring out how to teach Chinese to her English-born children.

“When my daughter was born, I spoke with her only in Chinese. By the time she was three, she would look blank and only reply in English. It was even worse with my son,” she says.

Hsueh persevered, enrolling her children in a Chinese club, and introducing them to teaching materials sent by her Taiwanese relatives. Still, she failed to elicit their interest.

Well-versed in problem solving and design thinking, Hsueh came up with her own solution.

“I used a computer and broke down thousands of characters into their basic components. A lot of characters share common components and are interlinked,” she says.

She was still scribbling her ideas on napkins when she was invited to give a TED talk on the subject. The video of her talk, shared by tech influencers, quickly went viral.

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Sensing an opportunity, Hsueh got Chineasy up and running. Since 2013, her pictograms have been reproduced in books, mobile apps, playing tiles and flashcards on the language-learning platform Duolingo.

Her mission has spread far beyond encouraging just her children to speak her mother tongue and get in touch with their cultural roots.

“When I moved to the UK, I saw another side of the world. And I saw a lot of unnecessary tensions, resulting from [things] lost in translation and a lack of understanding. When [Westerners] look at China, there’s a lot of apprehension and stereotypes,” she says.

Hsueh hopes to bridge the gap between East and West by introducing more people to the Chinese language and promote mutual understanding.

It is an ambitious goal, but just like her attempts to climb mountains, she is determined to move forward one step at a time. Or in this case, one word at a time.