Learn Chinese in the 21st Century | Haiyan Fan | TEDx Talk

Many people are overwhelmed attempting to learn Chinese with ineffective drills and hard memorization. How to make sense of these Chinese characters for the 21st century learners so that they not only become meaningful to you, but also stay long in your memory? In this TEDx talk, Dr. Haiyan Fan, a language educator with a background in Linguistics, Artificial Intelligence and User Experience Design, provided an organic learning solution called “Chinestory: Learn Chinese through Pictures & Stories”, by growing yourself a Chinese language tree from its roots -- 300 Oracle Bone Scripts.   She demonstrated to the audience through beautifully illustrated ancient scripts, etymological stories and body movements, that are both educational and inspirational.

This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at https://www.ted.com/tedx

When I was just about to turn 40, ready to roll in the halftime of the life’s game, I made a conscious decision to leave the corporate world to start something new.  Yet, not in my wildest imagination could I foresee that one day I could put into use my previous formal training in linguistics, and experience in designing intelligent system and devices …to serve… a different purpose.

It was a road less travelled by, but fortunately I had this man’s example to live by. He told us that “you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”, and he is right. Thank you, Mr. Jobs!

It all started on one day, with one home lesson.  

Determined to make a good first impression on my kids of their heritage language, I conceived some ... “tactful and creative ways”, so I thought. For those running a bilingual family like me, you know what I’m talking about. It does take some creativity to motivate our kids to learn that second language, doesn’t it?


So…, this is our first lesson. I said to Joseph and Jonathan, “Chinese characters are super easy and fun, as they are sketch drawings of real world objects. Shall we draw together? One is represented by one line 一. Two represented by two lines 二. Three by three lines 三 . Person人 looks like a person standing nice and tall on two feet. Mouth口 resembles the shape of a wide-open mouth. Mountain山takes the shape of a three-peaked mountain. So simple and straightforward, isn’t it?

Now, one cool thing about this characters is that they are ALL pronounced in just ONE syllable, with no exception.  

Yeah! The kids were primed and pumped up for some pronunciation drills. Our first lesson was as smooth as a sailboat.

Until the 2nd lesson.  My six-year-old asks me, “Then how come four 四is not written as four lines?  Five 五is not five lines. Six 六is not six lines? Why is “I-我” written like this?  THIS is where it gets difficult. Using this cute drawing method, I couldn’t even get my son to write a basic character for “I”.

Another mom told me, “My 7-year-old daughter wrote herself to tears when practicing writing the character for ‘putting on hat’. It just does not make sense to her”.

Yet ... we humans are essentially sense-making animals. When things aren’t making any sense, our brain treats them as ... RAMDOM FACTS, which are processed by ... HARD MEMORIZATION, which is one of the most inefficient form of human cognition, vulnerable to the passing of time…

a natural phenomenon we call ... “forgetting”. There ought to be a better way...

The fact is, only about 10% of modern day Chinese characters, known as ... pictograms can be drawn in this way. The remaining 90% are ideograms and compound characters that are too abstract, or too complex ... to be drawn out. How do you draw I, or he or she?

As a matter of fact, of the top 100 most frequently used characters, statistically sampled from a corpus of 20 million, only 19 ... are pictograms.

Jonathan’s question sends me back to the drawing board. It seems that my mumzy’s hat isn’t sufficient enough. So I put on a hat for linguistics, another for AI, and another for UX design. Then I grabbed my trusty researcher’s flashlight, and went down the rabbit hole, all the way to the origins... of the Chinese language, my own mother tongue I grew up speaking and using every day, yet totally unaware of its... ingenuity and... beauty.

There I got a glimpse of the genesis of the Chinese language, an ancient script known as... the Oracle Bone Script, the world’s only living ancient script still in use today.  It is the jewel that crowned China’s civilization of 5000 years, credited with unifying the Middle Kingdom for more than 2000 years.

There I found a glimmering torch, yet bright enough to shed light onto the path leading to new discoveries, which would be instrumental to an organic way to learn Chinese that makes sense to people of all ages.

Learning Chinese through pictures and stories taps into two innate abilities we are naturally born with. The first is our brain’s extraordinary ability to process visual patterns, to recognize those patterns, and apply them over and over again by the primary visual cortex.

The second is our innate language sense. At the core is a remarkable thing we call ... “meaning”.  Meaning is intrinsic to human beings, just like our natural ability to eat and drink. Meaning is like a beacon in the ocean, sending signal for us to follow.  Let me show you what I mean.


These two characters obviously do not make any sense to this audience until, you see the things they refer to.  Notice the black or white script written on the illustration. It is the original ...oracle bone script, closely reminiscent of the actual thing it represents, from which the modern day character evolved.  The meaning is encapsulated in these highly abstracted graphic symbols.  


Hand and foot are intimate parts of our body.  Sooo many of our daily activities depends on using hand or foot, like wave, “say hello”, like walk, or kick.



Now here comes the key point. In the Chinese language, intangible ideas such as “left” and “right”, “an action continuing” is also expressed through tangibles such as hand and foot. “but how?”, you may wonder, Well, the secret lies again in “meaning”.  Like all other pictograms, the characters for hand and foot are the essential building blocks, functioning much like the DNA, carrying forward the original meaning, to construct a sequence of modern day compound characters.



Woops! something slipped and fell down (indicated by ㇏) because a lose hand(手) didn’t hold on tight. The new character 失means lose, lose control. Do you spy a tilted hand in it?

Raising your hand above your eye means to look, not just casually, but look closely, like the Monkey King was always looking at the things ahead. 

This is a foot print 止.  Can you imagine walking on just one foot? No one can, right? Not even a fox or wolf. So when our ancestors saw just one foot print, it was a sure signal that someone or an animal stopped ...there. Therefore, this modern character retains the original meaning: stop.

Now, when you’re walking towards your target, your foot print is directly facing the target, so this character 正means... straight. Do you spy a foot print in it? When you are marching straight towards the target, the action is just happening. Therefore, the modern character also means... “just happening, continuing”

When one foot print is followed by another foot print, obviously, a person or an animal is walking. The distance between two foot prints is... one step. Therefore, this modern character 步means  step. Do you spy a foot print on the top and one at the bottom? Notice, the bottom one has undergone some morphological transformation over a period of thousands of years. This simply means changes only in the form of writing, but not in meaning.

Remember this is the character for person? A person walking, swinging arms wide means ...“to walk”. Do you spy a person on the top and a foot print at the bottom? Again, some traces of morphological changes there. Can you feel the dynamics of the action? It is an action-packed verb.

Now that we’re ON action, let’s do some action. Let’s all stand up for some kinetics learning.

Now Let’s pretend we’re walking. In Chinese, you say  走 走. Remember the character for one, two, three? While walking, you say in Chinese with me, 一二三Great. Let’s put a simple sentence together. 一二三,走一走. One two three, let’s take a walk.

Attention! Walk one step. 走一步. Walk one step. 走一步.  Walk one step. 走一步.   Now, let’s do a synchronized walking by first turning left. Walk three steps. 走三步. Walk three steps. 走三步. Walk three steps. 走三步. [applause]

You see, you don’t just learn one character at a time. You learn a cluster of them, connected by meanings and stories, with visual cues, connected to your own common sense. Once connected, the beacon turns on... one by one ...one by one, forming a bigger and stronger network, known as the... neural pathway.  

A team of   neuroscientists at UC Berkeley found that words tend to cluster by semantic category. In 2016, using advanced imaging technology, they mapped out a comprehensive “atlas” of where different meanings are represented in the human brain.


  Let’s see two more examples. On the left is a dagger-axe. On the right is a big... dagger-axe. Do you spy the dagger-axe in it, with a big blade?

This is “I我”. Remember this is the character that Jonathan had a question on. Do you now spy a hand it 手? Do you also spy a dagger-axe in it 戊? it is a big dagger-axe.

Putting the two together, could it simply mean holding a big dagger-axe, but what has it to do with the first person pronoun “I”? 


Well…, according to etymology research, the creator of the ancient script reserved the best and strongest weapon as a... totem for the first person pronoun. In an ego-centric world view, which... we humans inevitably fall into, given our mortal nature,  “I”... am the person who holds the biggest dagger-axe. I’m strong. I’m undefeatable. Now you know self-confidence is not a new science at all, it is as ancient... as the Oracle Bone Script.



This is another common character 找, meaning... to look for, try to find, seek. It looks awfully similar to the character for... I. Unfortunately, its Oracle Bone Script is still missing and there is no archeological evidence to prove its original meaning. However, it is obviously made up of the hand and the dagger-axe components. It could literally mean use the hand to pick up the dagger-axe. “found it!”


Now let’s put these two characters next to each other. Notice that in “look for” 找, the two components, hand and the dagger-axe are separated, detached from each other. Notice however, in “I”我. the two components are joined together.


Is this just pure coincidence? After all, there could be so many errors in copying text from text over a period of thousands of years. Or, could it be some lost wisdom, tall ideas in that seemingly insignificant small ...gap?


Or, maybe, just… maybe, these two characters reveal profound ideas about The BIG question, who... I am… – the big “I”.


Don’t we all spend a life’s time searching for that piece of weapon, that perfect, exquisite dagger-axe, or light sabre, that empowers us, that is the love of your life?


the Monkey King travelled to the bottom of the East Sea to look for his pickaxe.    Some lucky ones stumbled upon it, by sheer luck or destiny, whatever you call it. Some found it at the age of 4. Some 74. Many of us  are still looking, seeking, but until that day when our hand lay upon that perfect dagger-axe, separated no more, then the “I” is integrated. It has become ...whole.


So here is my call to you. Grow yourself a Chinese language tree, from its root. These 300 Oracle Bone Scripts, still in use today, carrying the DNA of 3000 essential modern day Chinese characters, once learned..., will give you a 99% proficiency level. These characters are visual, meaningful, smart, efficient and above all,... wise. Sow a seed to learn Chinese language today, and you may harvest a tree of knowledge and wisdom tomorrow.

Dr. Haiyan FanComment