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ChineseCUBES makes learning Chinese fun

The reason for devising ChineseCUBES might not be, but should be, obvious.

Jesse Poe, with ChineseCUBES, at Toy Fair.
Nicole Gresh

“More people speak Chinese than English,” says Jesse Poe. “In fact, it’s the Number One spoken language in the world: One out of five people is Chinese, and currently there are 10 million documented foreign born Asians living in the U.S., three million of which speak only Chinese at home--an increase of 345 percent over the last 30 years, and second only to Spanish.”

And with the huge growth of U.S.-to-China business, there is a corresponding need for Americans to learn Chinese.

So Poe, as president of ChineseCUBES-USA, was at Toy Fair last week promoting the innovative "Inspired Language Learning" instruction product that teaches Chinese as a second language through digital /tactile cubes and what Poe calls “augmented reality.”

“You put a cube in front of a computer camera and it comes to life,” he explains. “It ‘talks’ with you in teaching you how to read, write, pronounce—everything you need to know to learn the language. By using augmented reality, interactive story apps and ‘gamification,’ the cubes not only make learning Chinese easier, they make it fun!”

There are 200 cubes in the ChineseCUBE system, which is aligned with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) proficiency guidelines and designed to bring people who have never learned a word of Chinese to meet national standards for foreign language education.

Each cube displays different information on each side, including a traditional Chinese character, it's simplified form, the pinyin (or pronunciation), the English translation, and an Augmented Reality Code that allows ChineseCUBE’s proprietary software to bring its interactive learning capability to life.

“You place these cubes in front of your computer's camera, the computer reads the cubes’ code and then the characters come to life on the screen teaching you how to write them, how to pronounce them in mother-tongue pronunciation,” says Poe. “The software takes you step-by-step, character-by-character towards fluency. At just 15 minutes a day for three months you can work your way through the first 40 cubes, which will teach you up to 2,500 possible phrases and sentences.”

Tagged “Building blocks of fluency,” ChineseCUBES is also available as CUBEBooks--interactive stories that can be downloaded on tablets, iPad, and in two months, Android platforms.

“These stories use the same cube technology and learning method, but instead of using the physical cubes, they are embedded directly into the story,” says Poe. “You see the cubes on the page, touch them and they come to life teaching to read, write and speak.“ The apps, he adds, are user-friendly, beautifully illustrated, and in addition to stories include lessons, vocabularies, readers, comics, songbooks and even business books.

And also available are free on-line videos that teach Chinese in concise 30 second segments.

“They’re great for those with tight schedules, and very easy to repeat for practice,” says Poe, noting that everything can be found on ChineseCUBES’ website: “It’s a learning portal, where you can chat with other students, take tests, get badges for your accomplishments, get other books, etc. It's the most comprehensive and easiest way to learn Chinese on the market, and at a fraction of the price of Rosetta Stone.”

Poe notes that “learners of all types” can get started learning the language on almost any device, in any situation.

“My perfect customer is a mom in Minnesota with three kids, who’s never eaten Chinese food, let alone tried to learn Chinese!” says Poe, who grew up in Muncie, Indiana. “The biggest step is getting to the point where you feel you can do it, and our system is all about breaking the ice so you realize it’s not as hard as it seems. While the program takes you from what we call ‘Zero Level learners’ to fluency, we want to get you past that first fear of learning a new language—especially Chinese—and instilling confidence that you can do it.”

The system was developed by Rex How, ChineseCUBES CEO and former publisher of The China Times.

“Chinese is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn,” says How. “Unlike Spanish, French or German, where one can correctly guess the meaning of a few words, Chinese is unique, and it’s not surprising or uncommon to run into mental resistance, frustration and ultimately failure. ChineseCUBES offers a system that incorporates state-of-the-art technology and strong educational concepts to make learning Chinese easy, fun, and even entertaining.”

"He wanted a way to teach Chinese that was easier than the typical book that shows a character, its pronunciation underneath, and under that the English translation,” says Poe of How. “That’s really overwhelming, and your eye goes straight to the English and you end up not learning any Chinese.”

Poe came to ChineseCUBES from a tech and music background. He had fronted a band called Tanakh (an acronym for Judaism’s holy books), which had released six albums of mixed music styles for Canadian and Australian labels.

"Back in the ‘90s, musicians had to build websites, which is where my background in tech started,” says Poe, who is now Brooklyn-based. “I worked for a number of tech agencies, and brands like Mountain Dew and Sephora, and was recommended to Rex, who was looking for someone to market his cubes and engage people with the product and turn it into a brand. I took the cubes and turned them into a whole ecosystem consisting of all the components.”

And even though Poe didn’t know Chinese—to the chagrin of some Chinese teachers—his shortcoming proved beneficial.

“There’s the ‘curse of knowledge,’ where once you know something you forget what it’s like to not know it, making it hard to teach. Ask any astrophysicist to explain math to you and they can’t do it—they have too much knowledge. So in product development, you want someone like me who doesn’t understand something—Chinese--who can say if they’re making sense or not. Because if they can’t teach me, how can they teach you?”

And as a result, Poe, who does speak Italian and worked in Italy teaching English-speaking teachers to teach English as a second language in Italy, is learning Chinese.

“We’re interested in helping second-generation Chinese in the U.S., people who do business in China, young people looking to learn the language of the future,” says Poe. “As the world evolves, speaking Chinese is a skill that can open the door to working wherever you want and doing business around the world.”

And if ChineseCUBES is successful, the company may branch out into Spanish, French, Italian and other languages, Poe notes, as well as teaching English to Chinese speakers.

“Then we’ll look towards other languages, especially with our CUBEBooks,” he says. “Other Asian languages would be a natural step, but I'd love to do Hebrew and of course Italian--which is my own second language.”

And he still puts out a new song every six months, Poe concludes.

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