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Saturday, August 15, 2020

Interview with Daniel Nalesnik, Founder of Hack Chinese, Rapid Vocabulary-builder App

Many people would like to be able to gain a deeper appreciation of China and Chinese culture. Learning Mandarin is a highly effective way to do so, and a gateway to a world of experiences and new perceptions. However, most people feel a bit intimidated by what appears to be an extremely steep learning curve.  Now, however, there is a completely new approach to learning Mandarin, offered in the app, Hack Chinese.

Welcome to an interview with Daniel Nalesnik, founder of Hack Chinese. 

 1.  What is your name and your background? 

My name is Daniel Nalesnik. I have a Bachelor's degree in computer science and two Masters degrees in finance and business administration.

Daniel Nalesnik - Hack Chinese

When I was 25 I started learning Mandarin Chinese. At that time, I was by no means “talented” with languages; I had taken 7 years of French through high school and college, and even to this day can only remember a few words.

My first ever Mandarin class shook my world: this language felt twice as hard as French (and as I would find out later, is actually many times more difficult), and yet precisely for that reason I was deeply driven to get better at it.

Within a year I had quit my job and moved to China for a year of language lessons in Beijing and Shanghai.

In 2010 I returned to the US for grad school, eventually taking a corporate job in Boston, Massachusetts. In 2014 I moved to China with the same firm, and then quit in 2017 to create Hack Chinese.

I still reside in Hong Kong, the most amazing city I’ve ever lived in.

2.  Describe a few of the extreme experiences that you had in your formative years that made you passionate about Mandarin. 

I’m not sure this is an “extreme experience”, but there is one thing that constantly stokes the fires of my passion for Mandarin.

When I realize that spoken Mandarin (whether it be a passage from a textbook, a dialogue on a television show, or just friends chatting), which was once completely incomprehensible to you, is “all of a sudden” effortlessly and completely understood, as if it were spoken in English.

“All of a sudden” is how it feels, but of course it’s the fruit of consistent work over a long time: learning words, practicing listening, studying grammar, etc.

Comprehension, when it is as instant and effortless as with English, is nothing short of beautiful; which is why I often tell students to taste these experiences as early -- and often -- as possible, as they will provide more motivation than anything else you (or a gamified app) could do.

3.  What is your app, Hack Chinese? 

Hack Chinese is a spaced-repetition based tool that helps students grow their Chinese vocabulary.

People are often quick to compare Hack Chinese with something like Duolingo or Rosetta Stone, which is like comparing apples to oranges.

Apps like Duolingo teach (usually beginner) students everything about the language: vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, speaking, listening, and even culture. 

Apps like that are a fantastic way to “test the waters” with a language to see if you like it enough to stick with it for the long run. (After all, learning a language to a point of real proficiency is a multi-year task at minimum.) 

But once you finish their curriculum, you’re an advanced beginner (at best) with a very long way to go.

Hack Chinese is for students who have decided to take the plunge: they want to reach the upper echelons of Chinese proficiency, and while they are willing to put in the enormous required time and effort, they want to be as efficient as possible. 

For serious students, Hack Chinese is just one tool in their toolkit, but an important one.

What Hack Chinese does specifically is it tries to solve one particularly gnarly problem: learning Chinese vocabulary. Chinese vocabulary is harder to learn than words in other languages (with characters, pinyin, and tones), and there is a LOT of it.

While learning a few hundred words is a task that almost any learning method can handle, more thought is needed when the volume of words known grows much bigger. For example, a physical flashcard system will become unwieldy when you approach even 1,000 words.

Hack Chinese is designed for students who want to learn 5,000, or 10,000 words.

We make this possible by ironing out all the inefficiencies, removing as many hurdles to getting started, and relentlessly reducing the “maintenance cost” of keeping your vocabulary strong and your learning system intact.

4.  There are usually two approaches to learning a language:  conversational, and grammatical.  Hack Chinese seems to be completely different.  To begin, it seems to start with three random words, with no explanation about either grammar or conversation.  I've just finished the first lesson, but from what I'm gathering, I'm gathering Cognitive Legos that I'll put together later.  Right now, though, my pieces do not fit together very well.  Why should I stick with it? What will happen as I progress?

I’ve heard of many approaches to learning a language, and learning vocabulary is a part of all of them. 

Hack Chinese doesn’t try to teach you everything. Instead, it tries to be the best possible solution to one very important problem: growing your vocabulary. Provided you have a foundation in the language (and understand Pinyin and tones), and are dedicated to practicing what you learn (by reading, watching TV, etc.), sticking with Hack Chinese will give you a humongous vocabulary. 

A large vocabulary provides innumerable benefits: reading your textbook is easier. Learning grammar is simpler. Watching television is more enjoyable. More conversations are comprehensible. Etc. 

No matter what, you’ll never regret knowing more words in the foreign language you’re trying to learn!

5.  What made you develop your radical new approach?  Do you have any success stories?  How old are they? Can this old dog (well, this old Corgi) learn Mandarin? 

Language learners are very familiar with spaced repetition due to its efficacy. In fact, the market is flooded with spaced repetition tools, so the main approach is not radical at all.

What sets Hack Chinese apart is that we realized spaced repetition just gets you in the door; it’s not a differentiator. Yes, we do spaced repetition (really well), but what we also do is add layer after layer of polish (more often than not by removing extraneous features!)

Instead of offering you 100 customizable options, we bake in the best practices, and give you a few meaningful options to play with when you need them.

My favorite success story so far comes from a woman who graduated with a linguistics degree last year, then moved to China. In January of this year she was at HSK 1 (150 words). Today, about 8 months later, she’s approaching knowledge of 9,000 words!

Keep in mind, she hasn’t just “been exposed” to 9,000 words; those memories are strong and recallable for her. We know this because we test her every single day 

To be sure, she has spent a lot of time, about 40 minutes per day, to achieve this outcome. But for students who are willing to spend the time, Hack Chinese provides a framework that enables all that hard work to matter.

One of our most dedicated students is in her 60s, and has a more relaxed approach: she studies 10 minutes a day, and has seen slow and steady vocabulary growth for over a year.

6.  Who is using Hack Chinese right now?

We have users from all over the globe, especially in China and the United States (particularly California!)

Are they planning to be in an immersive situation any time soon? 

Many of our students live in China already. We have one particular feature that these users love: as they encounter a new, unknown word “in the wild” (on a menu, in a conversation, on TV), they can add it to their study plan using our integrated dictionary. If you look something up once, it’s likely you’ll need it again in your life, so adding it to your long-term study plan right away makes sense

When I was in Tianjin last year, I found myself using Google Translate for phrases such as, "I am sorry that my credit card was declined. I need to verify that I made the purchase. It will be okay."  The app on my phone spewed out: 
Then I pressed "play" and a pleasant female voice spoke the words. I have to admit that having such a convenient app was a huge disincentive for learning the language.  

Make no mistake: as technology advances, the necessity for learning a foreign language for the sole purpose of communication will eventually decrease to zero.

In-ear, real-time, heads-up display, real-time augmented reality contact lenses (can I stuff any more buzzwords in here?)… all of that stuff advances in one direction only.

But if communication is the only reason someone is learning Chinese, you aren’t the type of student Hack Chinese was built for anyway. (In fact, learning Chinese is so hard, it would be wiser to hire a translator to be with you every time you need them, instead of investing thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars in lessons, apps, textbooks, etc.)

There will always be students who want to learn a foreign language for the cognitive benefits, the deeper cultural understanding, the sense of achievement, etc. These are the students who Hack Chinese was built for.

7. Can Hack Chinese help me overcome my urge to gnaw on a rawhide bone and watch the neighbor's cat instead of spending that 15 minutes morning and evening with the Hack Chinese app? 

Probably not, rawhide bones are pretty irresistible to most Corgis! :) But this is what we do:

Many apps are ‘gamified’ to make you addicted to earning badges or experience points. But experience points aren’t intrinsically valuable. (If someone asked you how your Chinese was, telling them how many Duolingo badges you had earned would be a pretty odd way to reply.)

What is intrinsically valuable is knowing 1,000 more words. We focus our gamification on simply making transparent your progress with intrinsically valuable skills.

For the right type of Corgi, this is more attractive than even the most succulent beef flavored chew toy.

8.  What are your plans for the future?

Hack Chinese has been a passion project of mine for a long time. It took me several years to decide to give up my corporate career and start something on my own. 2020 has been great for Hack Chinese, and I hope to be able to continue to make it better for years to come.

I currently live in Hong Kong, but I’ve been in Asia for almost a decade and my parents in the US keep reminding me that a) they aren’t getting younger and b) all of their friends have children. I’m not sure what it all means! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

9.  Please recommend a few books that a curious Corgi would enjoy. 

I’ll give you three books!

My favorite book of all time (read in 2015): Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I read all books with a highlighter close at hand, just in case any section is so life-altering that it makes me stop reading and close my eyes while I contemplate. With Sapiens, almost the entire book was highlighted. This book is truly on another level for me. Nothing else even comes close.

My favorite book last year: Atomic Habits by James Clear. Instead of encouragement (which often goes in the ear and out the other), James’s book is purely pragmatic: what techniques actually work to help you develop and keep good habits, while kicking destructive ones away? I can not recommend this book more highly. It recently hit #1 on the NYT bestseller list!

Favorite book this year (so far! ← my humblebrag slyly indicating I read a lot): Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. Turns out, being awake is like brain damage that only sleep can repair. The ways in which your body heals and repairs itself during all stages of sleep are so profound that I’ve started drinking alcohol in the afternoon. (Huh? What did I just stay? You heard me right, I guess you’ll have to read the book to find out why!)

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