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How to learn Chinese by the time you land

Can Shaolan Hsueh make the task of learning Mandarin easy and intuitive? Long-suffering student CATHY ADAMS tries out her podcasts

For non-native speakers, Mandarin is one of the hardest languages to learn. That’s thanks to a complex character system (there are over 50,000, and they’re not phonetic). Add four tones and thousands of homophones. If you’ve always wanted to crack the basics of Mandarin, a long-haul flight is a good place to start.

Chineasy, a concept created in 2014 by Taipei-born, London-residing Shaolan Hsueh to help her children learn Mandarin, started life as a book and flashcards explaining Chinese characters using a series of childlike pictograms. There was a problem: while users could recognise 400 simplified Chinese characters and their pinyin spelling, there was limited instruction on how to pronounce them.

Enter Talk Chineasy, a series of daily podcasts Hsueh created in 2017 that focus on improving oral skills, recognising the four tones and learning about Chinese culture. In each short podcast, Hsueh introduces a Chinese word or phrase, designed to be useful for daily life, through interviews and conversations with experts and influencers. Guests – both Mandarin speakers and learners – include businessperson Arianna Huffington; Philip Rowley, CFO of Sony Pictures Entertainment; and professors from MIT.

Listeners will learn how to make introductions, talk about the weather and – most importantly – how to order red and white wine. After a year, Hsueh claims, listeners will have mastered 365 useful Chinese phrases. If you listen to all 110 minutes of the podcast and watch both of Hsueh’s TED Talks onboard, you will have learnt at least a handful including the basics of the Chinese zodiac, and understand how her Chineasy pictograms convey meaning.

‘Talk Chineasy is for everyone with a curious soul,’ Hsueh tells Discovery. ‘The journey begins with ni hao (hello), and Talk Chineasy is the first natural step for everyone who is interested in knowing more about China, the Chinese language and its culture.’

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