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TED2013

ShaoLan: Learn to read Chinese ... with ease!

February 26, 2013

For foreigners, learning to speak Chinese is a hard task. But learning to read the beautiful, often complex characters of the Chinese written language may be less difficult. ShaoLan walks through a simple lesson in recognizing the ideas behind the characters and their meaning -- building from a few simple forms to more complex concepts. Call it Chineasy.

ShaoLan Hsueh - Technologist, entrepreneur
ShaoLan want to help people understand China's culture and language, and to bridge the gap between East and West. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Growing up in Taiwan
00:12
as the daughter of a calligrapher,
00:14
one of my most treasured memories
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was my mother showing me the beauty, the shape
00:18
and the form of Chinese characters.
00:21
Ever since then, I was fascinated
00:24
by this incredible language.
00:26
But to an outsider, it seems to be
00:29
as impenetrable as the Great Wall of China.
00:32
Over the past few years, I've been wondering
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if I can break down this wall,
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so anyone who wants to understand and appreciate
00:40
the beauty of this sophisticated language could do so.
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I started thinking about how a new, fast method
00:46
of learning Chinese might be useful.
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Since the age of five, I started to learn how to draw
00:53
every single stroke for each character
00:57
in the correct sequence.
01:00
I learned new characters every day
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during the course of the next 15 years.
01:05
Since we only have five minutes,
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it's better that we have a fast and simpler way.
01:10
A Chinese scholar would understand 20,000 characters.
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You only need 1,000 to understand the basic literacy.
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The top 200 will allow you to comprehend
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40 percent of basic literature --
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enough to read road signs, restaurant menus,
01:29
to understand the basic idea of the web pages
01:32
or the newspapers.
01:35
Today I'm going to start with eight
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to show you how the method works.
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You are ready?
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Open your mouth as wide as possible
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until it's square.
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You get a mouth.
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This is a person going for a walk.
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Person.
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If the shape of the fire is a person
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with two arms on both sides,
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as if she was yelling frantically,
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"Help! I'm on fire!" --
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This symbol actually is originally from the shape of the flame,
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but I like to think that way. Whichever works for you.
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This is a tree.
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Tree.
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This is a mountain.
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The sun.
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The moon.
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The symbol of the door
02:33
looks like a pair of saloon doors in the wild west.
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I call these eight characters radicals.
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They are the building blocks
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for you to create lots more characters.
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A person.
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If someone walks behind, that is "to follow."
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As the old saying goes,
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two is company, three is a crowd.
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If a person stretched their arms wide,
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this person is saying, "It was this big."
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The person inside the mouth, the person is trapped.
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He's a prisoner, just like Jonah inside the whale.
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One tree is a tree. Two trees together, we have the woods.
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Three trees together, we create the forest.
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Put a plank underneath the tree, we have the foundation.
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Put a mouth on the top of the tree, that's "idiot." (Laughter)
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Easy to remember,
03:35
since a talking tree is pretty idiotic.
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Remember fire?
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Two fires together, I get really hot.
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Three fires together, that's a lot of flames.
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Set the fire underneath the two trees, it's burning.
03:50
For us, the sun is the source of prosperity.
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Two suns together, prosperous.
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Three together, that's sparkles.
04:00
Put the sun and the moon shining together,
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it's brightness.
04:04
It also means tomorrow, after a day and a night.
04:05
The sun is coming up above the horizon. Sunrise.
04:09
A door. Put a plank inside the door,
04:14
it's a door bolt.
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Put a mouth inside the door, asking questions.
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Knock knock. Is anyone home?
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This person is sneaking out of a door,
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escaping, evading.
04:28
On the left, we have a woman.
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Two women together, they have an argument.
04:33
(Laughter)
04:35
Three women together, be careful, it's adultery.
04:38
So we have gone through almost 30 characters.
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By using this method, the first eight radicals
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will allow you to build 32.
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The next group of eight characters
04:53
will build an extra 32.
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So with very little effort,
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you will be able to learn a couple hundred characters,
04:59
which is the same as a Chinese eight-year-old.
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So after we know the characters, we start building phrases.
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For example, the mountain and the fire together,
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we have fire mountain. It's a volcano.
05:10
We know Japan is the land of the rising sun.
05:13
This is a sun placed with the origin,
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because Japan lies to the east of China.
05:20
So a sun, origin together, we build Japan.
05:23
A person behind Japan, what do we get?
05:27
A Japanese person.
05:30
The character on the left is two mountains
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stacked on top of each other.
05:36
In ancient China, that means in exile,
05:38
because Chinese emperors, they put their political enemies
05:41
in exile beyond mountains.
05:44
Nowadays, exile has turned into getting out.
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A mouth which tells you where to get out
05:51
is an exit.
05:54
This is a slide to remind me that I should stop talking
05:55
and get off of the stage. Thank you.
05:59
(Applause)
06:01
Translator:Joseph Geni
Reviewer:Morton Bast

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ShaoLan Hsueh - Technologist, entrepreneur
ShaoLan want to help people understand China's culture and language, and to bridge the gap between East and West.

Why you should listen

ShaoLan is an entrepreneur, angel investor, geek, writer, traveller and dreamer. She is the founder and creator of Chineasy, which she launched after her TED Talk in Long Beach, California in 2013.

In just over three years, she has built Chineasy into one of the most popular methods of learning Chinese across the Internet with several hundred thousand fellow learners. Her first book, Chineasy, The New Way to Read Chinese, was launched in March 2014 and has been translated into 18 languages. Her next book, Chineasy Everyday, was launched in March 2016.

ShaoLan is a tech entrepreneur with extensive business experience. At the age of 22, while studying for her MBA, she wrote four best-selling books on software in Taiwan, and her books were bundled by Microsoft. She co-founded pAsia, one of the major players on Internet in Asia in 1990’s. After a second masters degree at the University of Cambridge, she began Caravel Capital in 2005 to advise young tech companies.

Chineasy represents a return for ShaoLan to her artistic upbringing and in many ways a design project. This project is the culmination of her life’s journey through the East and West. Her aim is to help people to understand China, Chinese culture, its language and to bridge the gap between East and West. Her next step is to help Chinese children to enjoy and appreciate the beauty of their own language. 

 

The original video is available on TED.com
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