5 years ago Dom thought he was pretty smart. He had studied physics in Germany and in Brazil. He’d worked for Airbus as a spacecraft engineer 🚀, and as a data scientist for a London fintech startup.
The challenge of learning Mandarin Chinese
Then he met his wife, who is Chinese. But he couldn’t communicate with her parents, because they didn’t speak English.
So he set out to learn Mandarin Chinese. But it was impossible. There are thousands of characters, all connected in complex ways. There was some kind of order to it but he couldn’t discern it.
He tried many Chinese courses and language learning app. All of them were trying to teach Chinese in some way, but none of them taught how to learn Chinese.
This prompted Dom to dive into learning science himself. He came across methods like spaced repetition and active recall, and an app called Anki. They helped him create a review schedule to memorize characters. It was an improvement, but not enough. The characters still felt like isolated facts. With nothing to connect them to, it was easy to forget them again.
Finally, he learned about a method called memory palace, which allowed him to associate visual images with each character. The images contained recurring elements, corresponding to the various components (or radicals) of a character, as well as its meaning and pronunciation.
This was a breakthrough moment. Finally he was able to make characters stick!
He created a Chinese course based on this method just for himself.
The start of Traverse
After seeing the success, he realized the same method could be used to learn many different things, so he started building a platform to make efficient learning techniques available to anyone, based on the cognitive science behind mind mapping, visual mnemonics and spaced repetition flashcards. This was the start of the app called Traverse.
Some time after, he was contacted by a Chinese course who had developed a similar method (which they called the “Hanzi Movie method”), and one of the first uses cases of Traverse was for their Chinese course.
Traverse then soon started to be also used by medical students, machine learning researchers, and many other learners in notoriously difficult fields. Nowadays, Traverse is being used by over 10000 students.
And Dom has continued to learn Chinese, now knowing over 3000 characters. It has enabled him to move to China, and speak fluently with his wife’s family and friends.