Chinese is notoriously hard to learn, and chief among the culprits for this difficulty are its thousands of characters. Digital dictionaries have made the process of looking up characters far less laborious than the paper-only days, particularly with the addition of touch-screens enabling learners to simply draw any new character they see. But the process of learning the characters and understanding the roots of their meaning and pronunciation remains as tiresome and ineffective as ever.
But there may soon be an app for that thanks to the enterprising linguists at Outlier Linguistic Solutions, who are putting together a dictionary for the Chinese-English dictionary app Pleco which breaks down characters into their functional components and shows learners how to best extract meaning and sound from new ones they encounter. CER recently spoke with Ash Henson, co-founder of Outlier, about life as a linguistic entrepreneur and the Kickstarter his team recently launched to support the new dictionary’s development.
Could you briefly introduce the idea behind your dictionary for people who haven’t heard of it before?
Well basically we’re making a Chinese character dictionary for people to actually understand characters, because they are so many misconceptions about them. Our system consists of four different types of function components [in characters]: You have your sound component and we have two types of semantic components, because there’s different ways that meaning is presented in characters, although people usually explain characters only in terms of meaning components.
There’s also form components, which explain their meaning by way of a form. For instance, the character da 大, it has the meaning big, but its form is a picture of a person, like standing in front of you. And when it gives the meaning big in a character, that’s when it’s a meaning component, and when it gives a meaning that has to do with people, [acting as] a picture of a person, that’s the form component usage.
And, what’s interesting is that, especially in your [standard dictionary], there’s almost always form components—but they’re almost always explained as meaning components. That’s one thing that’s different with our system, we explain these two different ways of expressing meaning.
Then we have sound, and we have sound formulas that show you very quickly how sound variation works within sound series. Those we haven’t published yet because I’m writing an academic paper on it. Once I get a promise of publication then I can openly talk about it, but it’s going to be in the dictionary regardless. The last type is empty-component. And it’s an empty-component because the component is actually either not what it looks like it is, or it’s just being used as a differentiator.
I don’t expect many dictionaries are funded via Kickstarter. Why did you guys choose that as a funding venue as opposed to other models?
One of the main reasons is that if we can fund ourselves, then we retain control over the project. If we were to go through a publisher, they would have a lot of say regarding content. Doing it this way, we retain both more control over content and more rights (i.e., as far as sales, etc.).
It’s [also] just to get the thing out in a reasonable amount of time for the backers, but we also have quality control people who will be looking at it and going over it and stuff. We’ve been surviving, up til now, on our own money, and Kickstarter was John’s idea. John is much more into social media and being an online presence and he tweets and all these type of things. I come from an engineering background and I went to grad school for many years while I was working and I’m in front of a computer all day long, so things like Twitter and all that don’t appeal to me because I don’t need more excuses to be in front of a computer.
It’s a tricky proposition because we have to be able to eat while we’re making the thing. Like I actually teach English and translate, but those things take a lot of time away from doing research. And we’re trying to get this funding to… Well actually not only to feed ourselves, we’re going to have a support team. We’re going to try to get the dictionary out as fast as we can, we’re hoping 6-8 months, and we need a team where basically I’m not looking anything up.
Like for the characters I’m going to do on, say, Tuesday: On Monday our team will be in here picking all of our reference books and digitizing all the information on the characters I’m going to do [the next day] and they put that in the database. On Tuesday, I’m just sitting there in front of the computer, and I’m analyzing the data. And if I hit a brick wall or something, I need more data, I just stop and I tell the assistant, “Hey, you need to go look up these characters and these resources.”
Another reason [for using Kickstarter] is that we’re basically using this product to get the company off the ground. Our mission is to make excellent products for language learning. In theory, that could be from any language to any language. For instance, I already have an idea for a piece of software that could help basically anyone master tones, but that would require hiring engineers and programmers.
The Kickstarter is not the only funding avenue we’re looking at. The Taiwanese government also has funding for start-ups, especially start-ups that have to do with tech, like with apps and stuff. Our data will be appearing in apps, well mostly in [Chinese-English dictionary app] Pleco, but we’re going to try to get funding also through the government.
As a linguistics startup, what have been some of the unexpected challenges in terms of getting things ready to even launch a Kickstarter?
You just opened up a cover on over the abyss, just on an insane amount of challenges.
Alright, well, let’s keep it to the top few.
Well I mean just to start, my partner Chris has been living in Taiwan and mainland China for 15 years. I’ve been here for almost ten years. I’ve been in grad school here [in Taiwan] for nine years, and I’ve even published a paper in Chinese. And Chris has gotten his undergraduate and master’s here. And even at that level of Chinese, dealing with the Taiwanese government and trying to get through all the paperwork and all that stuff to even get a company set up is an extremely, excruciatingly painful process.
I think that actually with Kickstarter, our biggest challenge as of now is with people that are in the know, when they see our demo they tend to be very impressed and on board with it. Newbies, on the other hand, they are a little more skeptical because they don’t have the skill set to know if it’s real or not. I’ve been doing Chinese for so long, I’m probably not the best guy to do the marketing. It’s just hard for me to get back into those shoes.
Really there’s just always a challenge coming up that you would never think about. We were trying to get everything ready for Kickstarter, and just right at the last minute we were in negotiations with Pleco and so there is this constant back and forth with changing terms and oh, we need to change this wording or that. That took several months to get through it all. And we had to settle that contract before we could even
Then, at the same time, we found out we had to open up a corporation in the US so we could get a bank account in the US [to use Kickstarter]. Chris [is] German and John and I, we’re both American. And right at the last minute [the bank] like, “Oh, well your other partner is German so the three of you have to come into our office.” You can imagine that’s like 5 or 6 thousand dollars in a short amount of time to just go to their office. So we had to take Chris off of the American corporation and then write a contract between the Taiwanese corporation and the American one so that he doesn’t lose his rights.
So where does your team come from and what are your roles?
Okay so Chris Schmidt is our general manager. His background is actually political science, but he speaks Chinese at a level that most people will never reach. I speak Chinese pretty well and like I said I’ve been to grad school here for nine years, so I’ve had a ton of experience with Chinese. But Chris knows all these little bitty words. When I hear them I understand them, but he can say them, and his tones are about 99.99% perfect. And that’s not even my judgment. I’ve actually recorded him and played it for native speakers and had them judge it. So Chris brings a very advanced level of Chinese, [and that’s] why he’s the one that deals with the local government and all of that.
My background originally was engineering before I came here. My undergraduate and master’s is in engineering. And I was an engineer for probably close to nine years. And then I came to Taiwan specifically wanting to do something with Chinese characters. And so I learned old Chinese phonology in order to be able to analyze these sound series because you can’t really understand them from a Mandarin perspective. You have to understand from a historical perspective and then project forward in time to Mandarin.
I’m also getting a PhD in Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University. And I passed my qualifying exams in the area of paleography. … So I bring a strong analysis background because I was an engineer. And then I’ve got a pretty broad range in the area of paleography. So the system that we’ve got has been something I’ve been working on for many, many years. The goal is to take this ivory tower knowledge and boil it down to something that is not just understandable, but actually useful for the average person.
And John Renfroe, John is extremely valuable. In fact, Chris and I have known each other for probably nine years now, we’ve been talking about doing this dictionary now for close to that long. John came in much later about three years ago I met John. He studied Chinese full-time for about two years and then he was, he actually got into the Chinese department also at NTNU. And did a year and did pretty well within that year. But then his wife got a job in Japan so then they met and moved to Japan. She got a really good job there. One of those, you know, you can’t say no type of things.
John originally studied music, he actually scored movies. He saw the movie Hero, and the tones of Chinese really appealed to him and that’s how he got into it. He has a really good ear for the language’s pronunciation. One thing he brings to the table that Chris and I didn’t even know we needed was the online thing. The Kickstarter was part of it but he’s always on these Chinese forums, tweeting, doing social media-type things that I personally don’t have much interest in doing, even though it’s useful. I’d much rather read ancient books. ♦
Interviewer: Hudson Lockett (@KangHexin)