Marco Polo Project – Language learning, translation, and self-awareness 

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.

Marco Polo Project offered an original take on language learning, inadvertently.  

In France, where I was educated, language learning is omnipresent, and widely understood to be about intellectual self-development. From Middle School onwards, I was trained in classical philology – or reflective translation exercises. I learned about the shape of my own brain by measuring the gap between my default French language categories, and those expressed in Greek, Latin, English and German texts I translated into French. Later, in my English Bachelor’s, translation – intended for the same purpose – was a solid percentage of the final mark.

I made a wrong assumption that this was universal. It was a major blind spot, to which I attribute much of our later struggles.

There is an extraverted bias to language learning in Australia, and most English-speaking countries, as I discovered. You learn a language to ‘talk to people’, not understand others, let alone understand yourself. This is often presented as a self-evident need, and personal driver for language learning. In this paradigm, translation is pushed aside as irrelevant – even standing in the way of ‘thinking in the target language’, and performing adequately.

I have been known to say that I don’t speak to random people in French or English, so why would I suddenly want to do that in Chinese? Besides, with the progress of translation technology, mastering the art of smooth transactional interactions has become somewhat obsolete. While deep reflective self-knowledge has a value of its own, which it will retain, irrespective of technological developments.

This, of course, is a somewhat elitist view, showing my intellectual bias. And this bias coloured the direction we took. At some level, Marco Polo Project is, indeed, for the happy few. We cater to Chinese language nerds, who chose to pursue a difficult academic endeavour, and find joy in reading etymological dictionaries. It’s a narrow subculture, but an important one. Those language nerds make up the living tissue of global diplomatic engagement with China. If we can support greater self-awareness among this crowd, well, a lot of good is likely to ensue.

Yet Marco Polo Project is also an attempt at democratising self-awareness, and make the wisdom of classical philology more broadly accessible. From the start, the project has been not about ‘learning to speak Chinese’, but embracing hybrid identities at scale, and birthing a global world where China and Asia play a critical role. In this model, learning Chinese (or other languages) has never been about ‘engaging with China’, as if China was a stable, remote entity, existing sub specie aeternitatis. Rather, it is about becoming a global citizen in a world increasingly shaped by a rising and evolving China. It is more broadly about learning to navigate increasingly complex, ambiguous, and uncertain environments, where cultural assumptions and default categories must be challenged. This applies across all sorts of domains – whether migration, future of work and entrepreneurship, or adapting to the challenge of shifting our economies and societies to more ecologically-conscious paradigms.

This second ambition – to generalise self-awareness, and learn to deal with shifting and contradictory mental models – is not about a narrow subculture. It is about the future of education, and it needs to scale. So, we led systematic experiments in low-cost, context-independent models.

This combination of elitism and large-scale scalability has brought a measure of confusion, in our messaging and strategy. We’re targeting a niche group of intellectuals, yet also proposing a radical paradigm-shift in language education. We’re engaging a narrow subculture, yet hoping to be the seed of a new global community. Contradictions of the sort often trigger the richest creative questions, over the long-term. How to create a model dense enough that it can serve as a magnet for an elite of China nerds –  yet inherently open enough to scale globally? This is the challenge we’re working on. In the short-term though, this contradiction breeds confusion, and is certainly not conducive to a clear business models and other narrow measures of success.