Last Friday, the following article appeared in The Wall Street Journal:
"A New Way to Learn Chinese: Entrepreneur ShaoLan Hsueh aims to bridge the gap between East and West by teaching Westerners how to read Chinese".
The article is preceded by a video that begins with this note:
Entrepreneur and author ShaoLan Hsueh has devised a simplistic method for teaching English speakers to learn to read Chinese.
It is true that her system is "simplistic", but it is not true that people who use it "learn to read Chinese", despite her repeated claim that "it works."
During the last year or so, I feel as though we've been bombarded with publicity for "Chineasy". The creator of this alleged method for learning Chinese, ShaoLan Hsueh, seems to have unlimited access to the media. Her efforts to promote the scheme got a huge boost from a successful appearance on TED in February, 2013.
Her performance on TED is prefaced by the following remark:
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.
Quite the contrary, Chinese is the easiest language I ever learned to speak, but the writing system is by far the hardest I've ever had to grapple with.
But ShaoLan Hsueh's claims that written Chinese is a snap have flooded the airwaves. Here's another example (which mixes up spoken and written language): "Be fluent in Chinese in a flash (card)"
In this puff piece we read, quoting Ms. Hsueh:
“It’s a key, a gateway, but it’s also cool and so much fun. If you spend just five minutes on this a day, in a year you will have the knowledge of an eight-year-old Chinese child."
Though this is a dubious goal for an adult, I'm certain that, using her methods, no one would ever reach it.
I have tried to ignore this embarrassing (for the Chinese language teaching profession) campaign for the past year and more, but now I no longer can do so, since dozens of people — many of whom are otherwise intelligent and perceptive — have written to me suggesting that we now have a panacea for learning Chinese, as though Ms. Hsueh had made some gigantic breakthrough in transforming the most daunting script on earth into child's play. Far from it, anyone who deceives him/herself into thinking that using Chineasy is a magic bullet for learning Chinese will simply be wasting his/her time.
Here's what the director of the Chinese Language Program at a major American university says about Chineasy:
"I only watched the first minute of the video. What she is teaching is not 'reading'. At best, it will enable one to recognize a few Chinese pictographic characters in isolation. There is technology, but the content is all wrong."
I wasn't surprised to find ShaoLan on TED, because you get a lot of sentimental, schlocky things there, but what really astonished me is that ShaoLan and her "Chineasy" (I think it should be "Chinhard") are featured on the outside and inside front cover and first page (!!!) — a bit of overkill — of the current Thames & Hudson catalog.
I have published several books and chapters from T & H, which is one of the finest art, archeology, and design publishing houses in the world, so I was deeply puzzled to find ShaoLan's misguided notions for learning Chinese featured so prominently in the T & H catalog. It took a bit of digging, but I finally realized that there is a simple reason why T & H accepted this volume and is promoting it so energetically, and it has nothing to do with Chinese language learning. Namely, the clever, cutesy drawings of Chinese characters featured in ShaoLan's book are by the talented Israeli graphic designer, Noma Bar.
"Chinese made easy with 'Chineasy' by Noma Bar and ShaoLan Hseuh [sic --> Hsueh]".
For those who might be interested in ShaoLan before she became the savior of all those suffering souls who seek an easy path to learning Chinese, here are a few interesting things about her background.
First of all, she used to be called Heidi Hsueh and was "co-founder and executive vice president of pAsia, operator of the largest auction Web sites in Taiwan and China." See "Cross-strait chameleon" in the Taipei Times (Monday, April 3, 2000), p. 18.
See also "Caught in China's web", Investment Week (Feb 21, 2000).
Before that, under the name Xuē Xiǎolán 薛晓岚, she wrote a book in Chinese on the art of using Word 7.0 entitled The Word Book 95.
ShaoLan's career as an internationally renowned Chinese language maven had its humble beginnings with a B.A. in Agricultural Chemistry from National Taiwan University. Now she's everywhere! Just do a Google search on her name, ShaoLan, and you'll see what I mean. One thing that stands out in the countless articles about ShaoLan and her method for learning Chinese is that they usually feature her in unusual postures and poses. I think this tells us something about the substance of her work.
In light of our discussions about nerds and geeks (e.g., here, here, here, and here), what are we to make of a wannabe Chinese language pedagog who is fond of calling herself an "entrepreneur" and a "geek"?
So what does this all boil down to in terms of Chinese language learning?
First of all, if you employ Ms. Hsueh's methods, you won't learn any real Chinese language. You won't know the sound of a single Chinese word. You won't even know the sound of a single Chinese character. You won't learn anything about Chinese grammar or syntax. You won't be able to speak or write a single Chinese sentence. If you doggedly persist, you might learn to recognize a hundred or so individual characters, but you wouldn't know how to pronounce them or use them in any meaningful context.
What is worse, you will be subjected to a lot of assertions that are wrong. For instance, on her TED talk, ShaoLan says that "A Chinese scholar would understand 20,000 characters. You only need 1,000 to understand the [sic] basic literacy." And on the Amazon preview for her book, her treatment of zì 字 ("character") and cí 詞 ("phrase" [sic] –> "word") (p. 13) is woefully inadequate.
In the Wall Street Journal article, "Ms. Hsueh describes why the symbol for the verb 'to come' looks like wheat — because wheat used 'to come' from Europe."
This is a hopelessly garbled misrepresentation of the idea that, more than three thousand years ago, the archaic character for "wheat" (mài 麥) was used to write the word for "come" (lái 來) because they sounded alike. While we now know that the agricultural crop did come to East Asia from the west, it's an entirely different matter whether the Sinitic word itself was borrowed from a western source. Nearly two decades ago, I wrote a very long and detailed proposal for considering the Sinitic word mài 麥 ("wheat") as having been derived from an Indo-European source. This is on pp. 36b-38a of "Language and Script: Biology, Archaeology, and (Pre)History," International Review of Chinese Linguistics, 1.1 (1996), 31a-41b.
Chinese characters are not easy, neither for Chinese nor for non-Chinese. Chinese characters are hard. Chineasy is an oxymoron.
[Thanks to Toby Blyth, Richard Warmington, Stephan Stiller, Mien-hwa Chiang, Stefan Krasowski, Lada Vassilieva, and John Rohsenow]