John Renfroe is the CEO and co-founder of Outlier Linguistics, an online platform revolutionizing the way foreigners learn Chinese. John is an old friend of Glossika's founder, Michael Campbell, and kindly offered to talk with us about his journey learning the language, his suggestions for other learners, and more!

John currently lives in Tokyo, Japan, and is working on adding Japanese to the list of languages that he speaks.


Learning Chinese

John has had an interest in learning foreign languages since he was young. He learned Spanish in high school, like many Americans, but also continued studying it in college and taught himself some Latin. College is also where he discovered his love for Chinese.

As a music major, John focused on film music. When he watched "Hero" (英雄) with Jet Li, he became intrigued by the Chinese language and found particular interest in its writing system because of a scene from the movie which depicted a calligraphy class. On the next day, John started learning Chinese. He was not content to learn the language, however. He was also interested in learning about the language: its writing system, its history, and so forth.

After graduating from college, John pursued Chinese further by applying for a scholarship to study in Taiwan, and was accepted by National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU). After a year of study at NTNU, John enrolled into a master's program in the Chinese department. There he continued studying the history and development of Chinese characters by taking paleography classes, excavated-bamboo-text classes, and many others. Through his coursework, he learned to trace the history and evolution of Chinese characters, what they had looked like before, and how they have been corrupted (or "changed") to become the modern versions we use today.

While he was in Taiwan, John met the co-founder of Outlier Linguistics, Ash, who was working on a Ph.D. in the same Chinese department.

Radicals vs. Functional Components

The biggest difference between Outlier Linguistics and traditional methods of learning Chinese characters is a focus on what it calls "functional components", rather than the typically used "radicals". As John says in the interview:

"Radicals are for looking up characters in a dictionary. That's it. That's their whole reason for existence. The clue is in the Chinese name for radicals, 部首 (bu4 shou3), which means the head (首 shou3) of the section (部 bu4) where that character shows up in the dictionary."

That in mind, John does not encourage people to learn characters based on their radicals, as the meaning of a given character doesn't necessarily have anything to do with its radicals.

Brief History of the Evolution of Chinese Characters

The oracle bone scripts from the Shang Dynasty (around 1350 BC) are the earliest texts we have which include Chinese characters. There was not a standardized form of writing each character at that time, and there wouldn't be one until the unification of the writing system during the Qin Dynasty (around 221 BC). As time went on, components were added and taken away from certain characters, leading them to eventually evolve into the forms we see today.

As John mentioned in the interview, one of the main reasons characters got corrupted is the simple fact that scribes occasionally made mistakes when copying texts. Another reason is that scribes wrote with soft brushes in ancient times, and when the tips of those brushes would bend, it sometimes caused scribes to unintentionally alter a stroke. Over time, just like a game of telephone, some characters took on new forms as future scribes later copied these mistakes. These incorrect versions were passed down through time, and in some cases, even became the accepted form of the character.

By the Tang Dynasty (around 600 AD), most characters had reached a form similar to the ones in use today. This means that we can still read texts from ancient times, although the pronunciation of some words has changed since then. This is the beauty of Chinese characters and the biggest difference between English and other European languages. Chinese native speakers can easily read and understand many texts and poems from the Tang Dynasty, but native English speakers would need special training to read something like Beowulf, an epic poem written at approximately the same time.

Chinese Characters and Learning Japanese

John currently live in Japan, and has found that his knowledge of Chinese characters is extremely useful for studying Japanese. Having previous knowledge in Chinese means he doesn't have to spend extra time learning all of the Japanese Kanji.

John said, "A third of Japanese words are borrowed from English or Western languages. A third of them are borrowed from Chinese. And the rest are native Japanese words." This means one can read a Japanese novel with just knowledge of English and Chinese.

Suggestions for Beginning Language Learners

John's suggestion to beginners learning any language is to completely ignore the writing system. To him, it is more important to listen to a language and get the phonology and rhythm down before moving on to reading and writing. To this end, Outlier Linguistics also has a pronunciation course that focuses on teaching the user to ignore what they see, listen intensively, and imitate what they hear.

Simplified vs. Traditional

When it comes to learning simplified Chinese characters versus traditional Chinese ones, John takes a pragmatic approach. If you live in China or want to pursue a career in China, then start with learning simplified Chinese characters. If you would prefer to be in Taiwan or other places that use traditional Chinese characters, then learn traditional ones first.

Read more: Differences Between Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese

Regardless, if a person wants to use Chinese professionally at a high level, they would have to learn both traditional and simplified characters.

Watch the full interview here:

If you found this content interesting, you'll love Outlier's other courses, too.

As you can see from the above interview (and this one from a few years ago), John and Ash from Outlier Linguists are experts. I strongly recommend that you check out their other courses:

They also offer what are essentially university-level courses on various topics related to Chinese history/culture/literature, the classical Chinese language, and calligraphy/cursive:

Read more

  1. Why I Learned Mandarin Chinese: My Language Learning Journey
  2. Where should I learn Mandarin Chinese: Taiwan or Mainland China?
  3. Tips for Living in Taiwan as an English Speaker
  4. Reflections on 17 Years of Learning Mandarin Chinese with Gabriel