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Want to learn Mandarin? A Melbourne startup shows off its ‘Mad’ language learning approach in Beijing


As a native English speaker, Matthew Ho was once frustrated by Mandarin. This week, he’s in Beijing showing off just how fun and addictive it can be.

Ho and his team, Native Tongue, have been promoting Mandarin Madness, an educational gaming application, at TechCrunch Disrupt Beijing, a conference devoted to startup launches.

Of the 7 billion humans now present on the planet, over a billion speak Mandarin, the largest of the Chinese language dialects. And as China emerges as Australia’s major trading partner of the 2000s, choosing to learn Mandarin today can be seen, to put it mildly, as more than just a curious hobby.

But that doesn’t mean that serious language learning has to be boring, says Ho.

We know that gaming has a high level of engagement,” he says. “So we take the best elements of gaming and apply it to education.”

Mandarin Madness uses a matching method of pairing Chinese characters with picture representations to build vocabulary. The gaming isn’t exclusively for English speakers, either: since it relies on visual cues rather than translations to drive the learning process, the app is entirely first-language neutral.

The core of Native Tongue consists of Ho, technical engineer James Drucza and the ubiquitous Kym Huynh. Based in Melbourne, the team originally won the first Startup Weekend competition held in Australia in May, when they developed the initial prototype for Mandarin Madness in just 54 hours. Since September, they’ve worked full-time to bring it to market.

The TechCrunch network is known for its focus on the latest programs and products to be released in the digital realm.  The Beijing convention is the first such TechCrunch event to be held outside of the US.

According to Native Tongue, Mandarin Madness will be made available for the iPhone and Android in several weeks. Meanwhile, the team plans to apply the educational gaming platform to other languages.

We want to create addictive experiences that engage the user to keep coming back and playing the product, which will aid them to learn a new language,” Ho says.