Not everyone has the courage to uproot their own life in order to pursue a decade-long passion. The newsDesk caught up with theDesk Leighton Centre member Daniel Nalesnik, founder of Hack Chinese, to learn about his entrepreneurial journey creating a Chinese learning web application that takes a radically different approach to teaching Mandarin Chinese.
Imagine learning a foreign language and then preserving this knowledge for life. This is the aspiration of a new Mandarin learning app, Hack Chinese, to be launched this year by founder Daniel Nalesnik.
Daniel’s vision for Hack Chinese is to provide Mandarin learners with a novel tool that makes powerful learning algorithms accessible to everyone and allows students to accelerate their way to fluency.
“I wanted to create an app that I wish had existed when I first started studying Mandarin Chinese,” says Daniel. “One that would have been an essential companion to my learning.”
Journey to learning Chinese
Hack Chinese was founded on Daniel’s decade-long passion for Mandarin and built with a clear mission to raise the efficacy of current learning habits.
In 2008, Daniel first stepped foot in Asia during a visit to Hong Kong. Here, he started a fascination with Chinese culture and language. Soon after returning to Boston, where he spent most of his adult life, Daniel enrolled in a Mandarin Chinese class at Harvard University.
As his interest in the language deepened, Daniel decided to pursue learning Chinese for a year as a full-time language student at Peking University in Beijing and Fudan University in Shanghai.
Upon returning to the US, Daniel set to continue learning Mandarin – alongside his graduate studies and a rising career in Finance – with as many methods as he could find, including podcasts, online and offline tutors, meet-up groups, and every software application he came across.
In 2014, he jumped on the opportunity to relocate to Hong Kong with financial and investment services corporation State Street while continuing his Mandarin studies part-time.
It was two years later than Daniel made a decision that would change his life: leaving a corporate career to fulfil a life-long aspiration.
“You should err on the side of being bold with your life. You only have one.”
In 2018, Daniel started building Hack Chinese. The result is a product that is not only close to his heart but embodies his aspirations of pushing the limits of what is possible when learning this difficult language.
Learning Chinese intelligently
Nalesnik’s time attending language schools around the world gave him first-hand exposure to the issues and rewards that come from studying Mandarin. These experiences set a valuable foundation for creating Hack Chinese.
He realized that there was a definite need for a tool that could be used by both students and teachers, leveraging proven learning algorithms that typically only the most dedicated students have access to.
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At the core of Hack Chinese, therefore, is a powerful learning methodology that Nalesnik firmly believes to be unfailingly reliable and which he used in reaching Chinese proficiency.
“If you are willing to put in a lot of effort to learn something, you should put in the same amount of effort to make sure you don’t forget it. In the long term, it’s all about systematically learning new material while simultaneously keeping fresh everything you’ve learned before.”
These principles are embedded in the design of Hack Chinese. According to Nalesnik, every time you refresh a memory with a review, the memory stays in your mind longer. This discovery by German researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus led to an incredible learning methodology called spaced repetition. It’s no wonder that many language-learning applications, like Duolingo and Rosetta Stone, have all adopted the methodology.
Beyond the usual language app
Nevertheless, most language applications target students taking their first steps towards learning Chinese. But most apps peter out after bringing students to an ‘advanced beginner’ stage.
Rising above the intermediate plateau is where Hack Chinese comes in.
“Many applications cater to dozens of language pairs (i.e. English speakers learning French or Russian speakers learning Spanish). As such, they are unable to fully meet the needs of students learning any specific language. Students learning Mandarin cannot add content to these platforms, for example, to study for the IGCSE Mandarin exam or the HSK.”
Nalesnik explains that eventually, every committed learner will study from textbooks and with a tutor, read books and watch TV. But it is difficult to integrate these experiences with existing apps.
“Hack Chinese, therefore, is built from the ground up to work with any material the student encounters or decides to study from. The platform adapts to the needs of the user, instead of forcing the student to adapt to the platform.”
One of Nalesnik’s goals for Hack Chinese is to partner with Mandarin schools and link students and teachers together. This approach would transform the students’ learning experience and make studying more effective as class time can be spent on higher-value activities like role-playing — not just learning new words.
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Nalesnik explained, “Many students look to teachers or tutors to help them advance their language skills, but because teachers have no transparency into what their students know, most class time is blindly spent learning new things.”
Just like many of us, learning new material in the short run makes students feel good as they think they are progressing through more difficult concepts. But the challenge lies when the concepts they learn are insufficiently reviewed.
“While students usually have a solid grasp on what they learned last week, they tend to be much less fluent with concepts learned several months or years ago,” he said.
Towards a vision of excellence
Fourteen months on from starting Hack Chinese, Nalesnik has seen the beginning of his vision translated into reality. In May of this year, he rolled out a beta version of Hack Chinese.
As part of ensuring that the user is at the heart of his product, Nalesnik has also relentlessly reached out to private Mandarin schools, their teachers, and their students, to allow their experiences to drive future development efforts.
Establishing Hack Chinese in Hong Kong is part of Nalesnik’s plan to grow his vision in a city that has a large and increasing number of Mandarin Chinese learners. “The huge potential to tap into the local and regional market is exciting,” he says. “I truly believe Hack Chinese can be transformational for many Mandarin schools and learners.”
Nalesnik’s plans for Hack Chinese are ambitious, and rightly so. However, perfection takes time —the focus now is on ensuring a superior user experience with the existing features.
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No man is an island
Being a solo entrepreneur can be a lonely journey. It was a no-brainer for Nalesnik to opt for a co-working space. He became one of the first dedicated desk members to move into theDesk Leighton Centre since the co-working space opened in March 2018.
Nalesnik believes that a diverse working environment, such as a co-working space, provides a positive setting to develop professionally as a business owner.
“Being able to learn from fellow entrepreneurs in Hong Kong and exchange professional advice is invaluable.”
For Nalesnik, the journey to creating Hack Chinese is fulfilling an ambitious dream to redefine learning Mandarin, while gaining a breadth of new skills and experiences along the way. “Chasing a dream is definitely a rollercoaster, with each day more challenging – and exciting – than the last.”
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