I saw this video going around among expats in China and thought I would share it. Embed from youtube below or you can view on ted here:

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

Basically I think these two comments on Youtube sum up pretty well the 2 main reactions I've heard so far - if you have learned a lot of chinese, then this is nothing more than a good way for beginners to start. if you have no exposure to the language, you might be really impressed by this.

What do you think of the video? Do you agree with either of the people above? 

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Honestly, I think someone at TED is smitten.  The pictogram idea isn't new and it isn't hers.  Sure, it's helpful to know, but I think she is very misleading because only a small portion of Chinese characters are actually pictograms. The most common kind of Chinese characters are phonetic compounds 形声 (xíngshēng)  which are characters that share common radicals or components that give the characters a similar sound, for example "qing" 请,清,情,青,晴.

I think she has an idea worth sharing, but not on TED: it's not really her idea and it certainly isn't going to get you much mileage in your Madarin studies.  

On a positive note, if the people at TED really do think that this is an idea worth sharing, then I think a lot of us might also have a shot at giving a TED talk ; )

The Good stuff: 

  • Great that she associates Chinese with easy instead of hard.  We need more of this.
  • Nice graphics/design. 
  • Like the example on chineasy.com of a linked story bringing the characters together.  I build these sorts of stories for my learning, and have long wondered if someone could just write a novel that would tie the characters together neatly in a story. 
  • If all you want to do is have fun learning a few hundred easy characters (some of which aren't too useful) I think it would be fun to do it.   There are lots of products out there for beginners that are not really aimed at serious proficiency, it would do well there.
  • Not sure what the exact approach actually is - no details on the website.  I signed up for their newsletter though.

Other thoughts:

  • How is this any different from Heisig (apart from the pretty art?) or other radical/component based approaches?  Will 3000 characters have stories like this?  Or will this peter out at 200 characters with the rest left as an exercise for the reader.  What's the big idea that's different from what's already out there?
  • Don't like the 200 characters = 40% literacy and you will not get the gist of newspaper articles beyond "Oh it's something about Japan and fishing" or "Today some adultery happened in America!".  Ordering from a menu is more than choosing between the chicken (feet) the beef (lung) and the lamb (testicles). 200+ characters alone would be needed for meat, body parts, cooking techniques, vegetables, fruit, sauces, flavors, drinks, etc. 
  • Would have liked to see a learner report.  As a TED video, I prefer entrepreneurs who have results or at least a published system/tool, not just a basic webpage and an email list.
  • I think FluentU or Skritter have much much better technology products that are worthy of talks - and they have results and insights they could share too based on real people really learning. 

BTW - many TED talks are translated into Chinese now, some with full transcripts (English and Chinese) and you can search on Chinese subs to find them.  I watched this one with traditional subs on.


I looked into this a little more - check out the Facebook page at


There's some more to it than the video shows, and the system seems to be emerging on that page.  I do like the early use of components to build words, phrases and sentences which is kind of refreshing and fun.  As is the competition looking for character combinations inside the grid of characters.  Surprised I haven't seen that before actually.


Hey Tyson - these are some good, insightful and balanced comments. I especially like the idea of having some of the more data-driven chinese websites sharing student learning information in aggregate. that would be quite interesting.

hey jeremy -you make a good point also that tyson mentioned also- ultimately there is still value in this because she's helping beginners and helping people feel that chinese is not impossible for adult learners.

what i would like to see though is how this system scales over time to be more inclusive of handling all the wide variety of characters. did you start out learning radicals to learn characters or just start learning them? what about writing by hand?

writing by hand was the most useful 'change' in learning characters that many online systems seem to gloss over. i needed the pen & paper to force my head to remember the small differences....

I showed this to my students.  Even after 1 semester this talk is waaaaay too beginner for them.  We were able to point out a couple problems: 

1. No pronunciation.  So it's great that a 木 is wood and 林 is woods but without pronunciation that's essentially all there is.  

2.  Her pronunciation was a bit garbled at some points which made it difficult to understand.  Nothing against her but there were a few things I lost the first time.

3.  For Chinese learners who have already started studying, this was not so great, but it could be accessible for those Chinese learners' parents and families to get interested...

mandmx good to see you back.

i really agree with point # 1 - the meaning of a character is only one small part of the usefulness of a character because it's not like you can turn around & use that word elsewhere without knowing how it sounds. 

When I first started learning Chinese, our teacher used a smiliar method, but in conjunction with the Chinese words and their tones.  We used many of the same examples, going from person to big to sky (big person under a roof and so on.

This isn't a solution in itself, but it is a great way to introduce the most simple and common characters and to use them to build up to more complex (and less obvious) characters.  If this method is taught along-side the Chinese words and tones etc., it can be very effective and can also break down the 'fear' that a lot of people have of the 'strange and complex' characters and words.

I've been learning Chinese characters for about 8 months, now, on my own.  I use a website: www.memrise.com  I like the HSK courses best, as they progress with similar characters and sounds.  I have recently began to read children's books, so now I can work more on pronunciation.  I know quite a few characters and understand the meaning of many signs, menus, etc, but my pronunciation is not so hot.  I can pronounce words correctly if I only say them separately, but when I try to put them in sentences the stresses get mixed up.

I like the video for beginners.  At first, the whole idea of learning Chinese characters is quite daunting.  I never thought I would learn how to read or write, only listen and speak.  Now, almost the opposite has happened.  haha!

BTW, my son, who wants to come and visit and knows only a few word phrases, really liked the video and now he's looking into learning more.  So, I guess it works well for newcomers.  Thanks for sharing!

Looks like a great way to break down the fear for non-learners, not sure if there's a clear path to full study.

After reading some of the other comments, I'm thinking that perhaps Shaolan is only showing some of her cards with this approach.  I can see how this kind of thing might be helpful if you pair it with some other strategies.  

I'd like to see someone do something innovative with phonetic compounds.  Actually, my bets are on one of our SMC members Niel de la Rouviere.  HanziCraft Phonetic Sets just came out with lists of all the characters that have similar components and pronunciation.  I think this kind of thing can really be helpful for reading because distinguishing characters that look alike can be frustrating.  I always find myself thinking that I can read something until I take a closer look to see the characters aren't exactly what I thought they were. 

So, for me, if someone could develop a method for learning to read that used the pictograms, radical identification and phonetic compounds, then I think that would truly be something revolutionary. 

Well, hate to keep saying it, but actually Heisig does this pretty well.  Pictograms, radicals and components (phonetic or not - as long as they look the same) are used in a method that will have one recognizing (but not quite reading out loud).

Components (luckily phonetic or not) are taught in groups.  Only, instead of using the "sounds similar to" which is a big buggy because it's not always true that same component is the same sound,  Heisig uses a "looks the same as" approach.  Which is always reliable, and if there is a small difference you can see it.

Like the Shaolan method, the pinyin/sound is not emphasized in this technique. I think there are better ways to do that (e.g. learning words in context instead of individual characters) and it is trivial in this day and age to get the readings for a character should you really want to memorize them one by one.


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