Less than one in five American public school students take a foreign language. Last year, a $27 million federal grant program funding foreign language instruction was cut, leaving schools scrambling for funding.
But there are more free and low-cost online resources out there than ever before for language learners. There are web tools like Duolingo and Livemocha, online courses from the Foreign Service Institute, iTunes , and the BBC, and there’s always the option to find subtitled videos for further practice on Youtube.
One new resource that’s drawing lots of attention is Chineasy, a system for learning to read and write Chinese characters made memorable through clever illustrations. ShaoLan, a Chinese-British venture capitalist with a technology background, is the daughter of a calligrapher, with a passion for breaking down barriers between Eastern and Western culture. Her collaborator, graphic designer Noma Bar is the creator of the pictures.
ShaoLan’s mission is to create a full set of memorable enhanced pictograms and animations to help people learn 200 basic characters or hanzi necessary to become literate in Chinese. The illustration style is simple and whimsical.
ShaoLan started working on the Chineasy idea as a hobby for two years in her spare time. “I really started doing it for my children,” now 8 and 10, she says. Growing up in London she wanted them to become literate in Chinese and sent them to the local Chinese club, but “They have a really short attention span. They would learn something and forget it right away.” She decided to try and make it more fun and yes, easy, for them to learn.
She delivered a highly popular TED talk on her system last year, which drew attention from all over the world, conducted a successful Kickstarter campaign to publish a book, which is coming out in March with both an ebook and app versions. Recently even more people are hearing about the project because the book, the Chineasy Illustrated Dictionary, won a 2014 “Life Enhancer” award from the design magazine Wallpaper.
The project’s Facebook page, where they post short lessons and quizzes, has over 44,000 likes. It’s become a hub for a community of peer learners, consisting of both teachers at all levels from elementary school to college using the Chineasy pictures in their classrooms, combined with many enthusiasts using them on their own to pick up the rudiments of the language. “They may be moving to China, or living in China, and most of them found learning Chinese daunting and frustrating,” she says. “So many are advanced in terms of speaking and understanding, and they come back to me and say they didn’t realize it could be so easy to learn how to read and write.”
ShaoLan also posted recently on her blog that the Chineasy system is proving helpful for children with dyslexia and other learning difficulties, who may have trouble reading and writing Western languages. “I got a very long email from a mother whose daughter, age five, has learning difficulties and has to do home schooling. When she was reading an article about Chineasy, her daughter was sitting in her lap. She saw a picture of 8 characters. In 3 minutes she started drawing them.The mother was thrilled to know that her daughter had started writing Chinese characters.” ShaoLan is currently seeking experts to collaborate with to extend her system and provide more materials useful for children with learning difficulties.
Chineasy isn’t the first attempt to simplify the learning of hanzi. What it is is a masterful use of the tools of social media, design and technology to help spread a free educational resource far and wide. By being simple and highly visually appealing, by illustrating her work with shareable videos, by community building across a host of different networks (here’s Chineasy on Pinterest and Twitter), by being free, downloadable in multiple formats, and collected into a print book as well, the idea has spread far and wide. ShaoLan’s next two Chineasy projects are a 10 minute video introducing 40 or 50 characters, for further reinforcement, and a new book coming out next year that will provide a framework for basic useful phrases and conversations in spoken Chinese, while giving the historical and cultural framework.
There’s a world of open educational resources out there that don’t have the same kind of savvy to get themselves noticed–and there’s lots of educators who could benefit from such resources but maybe don’t have the time or energy to find them.