On Starting (Again)
Ten years, two languages, and one basic unmet need
Last week marked the launch of Add Oil Chinese, a website that provides graded Chinese content for intermediate learners. But its true beginning can be traced back to about a decade ago.
The year was 2011. I had just arrived in Taiwan, and I was learning Chinese on my own. It was slow going and not the wisest way to do it. After about a year, I tried to find easier news-based material, which I thought would be more engaging than what was in my textbook. But no such material existed.
That got me thinking about language learning content, and not just for students of Chinese. What I had in mind - news-based content written at an easier level - barely existed even for English learners.
I couldn’t do anything for Chinese, but English was another story. So, I created a podcast that was like NPR or BBC Radio, but for people learning English. I researched, wrote, and recorded a short episode on a single news story each day, using English that was easier to understand. I even spliced in intro and outro music.
In those days, podcasting was still in its infancy. Companies like Spotify and Soundcloud hadn’t gotten big, iTunes seemed to be the only show in town, and digital media companies like Gimlet hadn’t yet been founded.
But my podcast was helping English learners in every corner of the world. I could see the download statistics, and in dozens of countries - even Syria, where Arab Spring protests had morphed into a protracted civil war - people were tuning in.
A Japanese man wrote to me once, telling me that he and his daughter would sit down in their Tokyo apartment and listen each evening after dinner. And an ESL professor at a community college in San Francisco sent me an email telling me that she would play each episode in class and have her students discuss it.
These tiny ripples that reached across the world were coming from a small room in the center of Taipei, where I sat in front of my Snowball USB mic dripping in sweat (the AC was too noisy to run while I was recording, after all), pausing every time a scooter raced past my apartment (which was quite often).
I was 25 years old. I had no experience in education or podcasting, and was just giving it a go. There was a clear unmet need that I had stumbled upon. It felt like meaningful work, but it was also a lot of work. And since putting in so many hours each week could only last for so long, eventually the podcast came to an end.
Now, a full decade later, with more experience in language teaching and learning, it’s time to start again. But this time for students of Chinese, who face that same unmet need, but to an even greater degree.
With Add Oil, we are specifically focusing on learners who are in the intermediate range. They have moved past the beginner stage and are eager to go beyond the stale and narrow topics in their textbooks, but aren’t ready for challenging native material. Those are the learners who find themselves stuck in the “content gap” between beginner and advanced, struggling to find content that is both level appropriate and engaging.
Add Oil Chinese exists to fill that gap and help those learners improve their Chinese, by creating content that they can understand and enjoy.
With all that has changed over the past 10 years, what remains true is that learning a language - and helping others learn - is work worth doing.
So, let’s do it (again!).