Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Learning System – interview with CEO

You might have heard of Dim Sum Warriors , or seen their comic books on the shelves of Kinokuniya, but do you really know how great the whole concept is?  Or what translanguaging is all about?

It was a pleasure to be able to interview CEO Dr Woo Yen Yen about her co-creation of the Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Learning System.  I was heartened to personally experience her passion for bilingualism, and discover just how thoughtfully designed and pedagogically sound their concept is, to make Chinese cool.  It was one of the most fun interviews I’ve done.

Firstly, what is Dim Sum Warriors 点心侠 ?

There’s an app, bilingual comic books, and even a live musical, each broadly based around three young dumplings fighting a villainous giant pot of instant noodles.  It’s all in the name of creating a fun way for families to enjoy Mandarin together.

Their flagship product is the Dim Sum Warriors comics, which was licensed for publication by Scholastic.  After the critical success of the comic books, the Dim Sum Warriors Musical, was produced by one of the most renowned theatre directors in the Chinese-speaking world, Stan Lai, with music composed by Pulitzer Prize winning musician Du Yun.  It sold out on its opening weekend, and has toured 25 cities around China.

Most recently since 2021, the app was officially launched, culminating in the complete Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Learning System, comprising:

  • Little Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Tales (simpler than the graphic novels, and designed for younger readers)
  • Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Comic Jams (live stream, three times a month)
  • Dim Sum Warriors App (combining voiced comics, word recognition games, an read aloud voice evaluation in Mandarin and English)

Who is behind it?

The humble husband-wife team behind Dim Sum Warriors is a well accoladed one, combining their years of professional expertise with their passion for bilingual parenting.

It started off when Singaporean couple Dr Woo Yen Yen and her husband Colin Goh were living abroad in New York and encountered their own bilingual parenting challenges.  To help their daughter, they dreamed up a way to make Mandarin more fun through graphics novels inspired by a common love for food.

Dr Woo Yen Yen is a tenured professor in education, specialising in curriculum development, having started out as a Singaporean MOE teacher herself, and now with accumulated global experience from US, Taiwan and Mainland China. 

Her husband and business partner, Colin Goh, is the Chief of Content and head cartoonist.  He’s an award winning creative, having written comic strips for Straits Times, through to films, plays and books (including two New York Times bestselling books, and a giant stage musical which toured 25 cities). 

Their daughter – the real reason why Dim Sum Warriors was dreamed up  – is now joyously bilingual, and a part of the Dim Sum Warriors creative team, doing many of the voice recordings for the app. 

You can be sure that Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Learning System has been thoughtfully created from the collective expertise of an accoladed educator, combined with award winning illustrations from her husband, and backed by a team of creative and tech experts.

How Does Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Learning System work?

The Bilingual Learning System has three key aspects:

  1. Little Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Tales:  These are physical printed books with hilarious stories in Chinese and English, which are also available in digital format through their app.  The books in the series include familiar scenes like “Papa, I’m Still Not Sleepy“, “My Way is the Best” and “I’m Very Busy“, where the stories are close to real-life family situations, with a humorous and positive character-building storyline. These are really fun as supplementary readers for kids.
  2. Bilingual Comic Jams:  these are livestreamed chat-and-draw along events, which are held to engage the children and help build Chinese understanding through creatively playing with language.  They are held bilingually, and great for learning both English and Chinese effectively.  The intention is to build cultural confidence, global competence and creativity.
  3. Dim Sum Warriors App: the app is filled with games which cover both Chinese and English, including activities to listen, read aloud, record kids’ own voices in both Chinese and English.  The app gives plenty of aural and oral opportunities, and can even highlight mispronounced sentences and fluency. It combines cutting-edge literacy research with vocabulary building games and voice-recognition tech.

The app has already been used by thousands of kids in Singapore, Malaysia and the USA.

The Chinese language options in the app include Simplified Chinese, and Traditional Chinese. Whilst English and Mandarin are the current target language, there is a goal to add Bahasa Indonesia and Malay as home languages into the app too.

My side note here:  when we first tried out the app a year back, I was initially put off by the fact the app is not fully in immersive Chinese.  It actually mixes English and Chinese throughout.  Since I didn’t understand the Chinese myself, I mistakenly didn’t realise how cleverly the English and Chinese dialogues are intertwined, through a pedagogical concept called ‘translanguaging’, which I explored further in my interview with the creators. It’s a very neat concept, which of course is totally lost on a monolingual mother like me. You can read more about it in this article, “What is Translanguaging?” .

Interview with Dr Woo Yen Yen (via Zoom!)

Q. What inspired you to raise your daughter bilingually?

We always wanted to, as we’re Singaporeans.  If we were in Singapore, it would have happened.  But we were in New York.  We had a Chinese nanny, but our daughter had limited opportunities to learn Chinese outside of this.  It changed when my husband and I were creating a show in Shanghai, and she was hanging out in the theatre with us.  There was another child in the theatre who spoke no English, and the two of them managed to strike up a friendship over three months using a digital translator.  That’s when the penny dropped for her.   She was 8 years old.  She’s now 12, and she’s reading novels and comics in Chinese. 

Q. Where did you and your husband grow up, and what languages do you speak?

We both grew up in Singapore.  My home language is Hokkien. My parents were not highly educated, so we had limited English and Mandarin—we had a lot of lovely Hokkien and Cantonese though.  At school we learnt Mandarin, which was also tough, especially as mine wasn’t a literary family at all.

Colin came from a Peranakan home, speaking mainly English and some Malay. Chinese wasn’t a home language, but he learnt it in school.  He doesn’t feel fluent in Mandarin, but continually surprises himself even today that he’s actually using his art to teach others the language.

Q. What is your main advice for achieving success in language learning?

It’s important to bring the language alive.  Textbook learning is tough.  The moment you start playing with the language, it opens up a whole new world.  Being willing to be bad in a language is okay, as long as you’re willing to play.

I’ve stopped saying “I’m sorry my Mandarin is so bad” when I speak to a Chinese-speaking audience.  I won’t say it.  I don’t encourage my daughter to say it.  This preamble gets me into the bad habit of giving myself an excuse not to work hard searching for the correct words in the language, and I end up giving up too easily and resorting to English. So pretend you are good in Chinese and you will start to speak the language much more fearlessly.

Q. How does Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Learning System play with language?

Our app, books, and the comic jams do a lot of translanguaging…. That’s why all our comics in entirely in Chinese and, entirely in English.  There’s room for immersion, and there’s room for translanguaging. 

When you can play across the languages, you can understand both more deeply and you begin to make the language your own.  That’s why we try to cross between the two and draw out the similarities and differences, and have a good laugh.

For example, we were chatting in the comic jam about “wolfing down a cake” in English, and similarly, in Chinese, there’s a saying “狼吞虎咽” (meaning to eat hungrily like a wolf/tiger).  When you play with puns and realize similarities and differences across languages, you’ll remember it in both languages much better.  

On differences: when we talk about rain in English, we talk about how it is raining “heavily” and “lightly”. What we use is the concept of “weight.” However, in Chinese, the intensity of rain is described by its density and the size of the raindrops “雨下得很大/很密集” or “小雨/毛毛雨”. Once we compare and understand this, there is a moment of “oh, this is interesting”, and we will remember it better in both languages because there is a point of reference.

Q. What inspired you to become a children’s book author?

I think many children’s book authors becomes children’s book authors after they become parents. I’m the same. I think it’s the desire to speak to our own children and to create a lovelier fictional world for them.

My husband and I just became parents,  we were both missing home a little, and wanted to create something bilingual and bicultural for the world that our daughter was going to grow up in.  And just before that, I was practicing Shaolin kung fu, and so decided to do some kind of warrior thing.  We were also regularly going to dim sum in the neighbourhood.  And so, Dim Sum Warriors.

Being a teacher at heart, all our work comes from the perspective of making things understandable and appealing to the audience.

Q. What has been the hardest part about writing Chinese children’s books and designing the Bilingual Learning System?

We’re trying to be very careful with the translation and correct use of both languages, whilst maintaining the fun.  We cannot just do literal translations.  That’s why we have a small and thoughtful team focused on our use of language. 

Our key translation collaborator is Professor Lin Wenchi. He is the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at National Central University in Taiwan, and is skilled at being able to maintain humour across languages; maintaining accuracy but also authenticity.

It is quite the challenge to maintain accuracy and authenticity as both Mandarin and English are global languages which are spoken differently in different places. We have long and passionate discussions for example, about whether character Baozi learning K-pop rap should be translated as “饶舌” (ráoshé = tongue twister)  or “说唱” (shuōchàng = speak + sing).  .

Q. Aside from your own books, what are some of your favourite Chinese books for children?

We love Mo Willems series in English and Chinese , and recently we have been reading 半个老大(“Half a Gangster Boss”) written by 王文华, about the silly characters in his classroom – one of them is called, “half a gangster boss”  .  Basically we just love silly and light-hearted things. There are also some Demon Slayer anime comic books which are fun and getting really popular in Japan and Taiwan.

Q. How long does it take to typically write a story?

Books can be very fast or slow to write. Usually the thinking is a long time, but once we get the concept, it can be very fast.  For example there is one story in the app called  “There’s a Hole” which came about because we wanted to write about social responsibility for things that happen in the world, such as Black Lives Matter, or climate change, for 5 year olds.  Once we got it, it was literally written in a day.  Then of course there is the time spent fine tuning the language and humour.  A fundamental for any of our stories is that it must be funny.

Q. Which parts of the world are most of the subscribers to the Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Learning System?

We have spoken to several of the families who have used Dim Sum Warriors and they are currently mostly from Singapore, Malaysia and the USA. Because there are so many ways to use the Dim Sum Warriors App, and it’s supported by different kinds of scaffolding, we’ve had readers who are 6 and readers who are 11 – they appreciate the language and humour in different ways.

The parents we have spoken to tend to be the types of parents who do not identify as tiger parents, who are looking for ways for kids to enjoy language learning in more creative ways. And they all tend to love dim sum!

Special opportunity for your family to try out the Dim Sum Warriors App for Free

The Dim Sum Warriors App is suitable for learning both Chinese and English for ages 5-11.  The good news is that Dim Sum Warriors is giving away 6-months membership for FREE with no strings attached.

The award-winning Dim Sum Warriors App can downloaded here:

Dim Sum Warriors

Hopefully I might see you at one of the upcoming Dim Sum Warrior bilingual jamming sessions!

If you got to the end and found this helpful, maybe there are some other posts on my blog you might also enjoy. This blog is a passion project, where I share different things on our bilingual journey. As a parent who doesn’t speak any Chinese, we’ve relied heavily on online tools, clever robots and recommendations of others in our Chinese learning journey. Some of my earlier posts are:

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