The brains and brawn behind USA’s leading Early Childhood music programme, Musikgarten, share that children are oriented towards learning language, and music is a language. Music is also a social activity involving family and community participation, and music transmit culture, and is an avenue by which beloved songs, rhymes, and dances are passed down from one generation to another.
Who remembers hearing about Grandma singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to your Mum, who later sang it for you when you were growing up, and now you are singing it for your own children? What about this evergreen classic Chinese ballad, 世上只有妈妈好?
In multi-cultural Singapore, we have a whole treasure trove of these traditional and cultural songs, nursery rhymes, and poems of our different languages, that we meaningfully and carefully curate, and share with our younglings, and/or people close to us.
If you want to learn how to use music to engage baby in learning, or you just want to spend the time bonding with baby, come join us for our Family Music for Babies classes! During our classes, we introduce to parents, various activities that will help them learn to:
• Bond and play musically with their babies
• Stimulate the development of the babies’ left and right brain through music
• Sing, move, dance, rock, bounce with their babies, and playing wiggle, tickle and peek-a-boo games with them
Come by our school to have a chat with us to find out more about Musikgarten, and our class schedules! We hope to see you soon! Meanwhile, read on to learn a simple Chinese song you can sing to, and with your baby, and for an exclusive interview with the founders of Dim Sum Warriors.
What is your Mother Tongue? 我的母语是中文。
A Taiwanese colleague of mine created this simple Chinese song as part of preschool’s Circle Time. I like it very much because it can also be sung with baby, perhaps as part of a bath time routine. With her permission, I have adapted it, and included hand actions to aid in baby’s memory and eye-hand coordination. Here is the video, and I have included the lyrics (with hanyu pinyin) below:
这是我的小手 (These Are My Hands)
zhè shì wǒ de tóu fā ， mō yī mō
zhè shì wǒ de yǎn jīng ， zhǎ yī zhǎ
zhè shì wǒ de bí zǐ ， ā jiū ！
zhè shì wǒ de zuǐ bā ， dǎ hā qiàn
zhè shì wǒ de xiǎo shǒu ， pāi yī pāi
zhè shì wǒ de xiǎo shǒu ， huī zài jiàn ！
Still on the topic of the Chinese language, I would like to introduce you to the prowess of Dim Sum Warriors (DSW) as a tool for learning Chinese in a fun way! I first found out about DSW through my daughter’s primary school. I agree with their ideas about learning, as you will read on below, and decided to join them as a club member to access their weekly Doodle Dates.
As a result of regularly attending these Doodle Dates, over time my daughter started embracing the idea of learning Chinese. And I no longer need to force them to learn their Mother Tongue!
Dr. Woo Yen Yen, a former tenured professor of education, and Colin Goh, an attorney-turned-writer and cartoonist of New York Times’ bestselling books, are the founders of Dim Sum Warriors. Together, they are also filmmakers and multimedia creators who have made award-winning feature films, critically-acclaimed graphic novels, and a blockbuster musical that toured 26 cities in China.
I am so very thrilled to interview Dr. Yen Yen and Colin to chat about how Dim Sum Warriors is so inviting for children, and why translanguaging can be helpful for children learning more than one language (email interview has been edited for clarity and continuity):
How/Why did this passion project get started?
When our daughter was born in New York, we knew that we wanted her to grow up to be confidently bilingual and bi-cultural. This was really important to us as we knew this meant she would have a good foundation to be open and curious about the world, and at the same time, she could be really proud of her Singaporean-Chinese-New York heritage.
And so in a way, Dim Sum Warriors is an expression of that idea.
We had been working on the stories and characters of Dim Sum Warriors on and off since our daughter was born. But the real push to consolidate the experience in an EdTech (education technology) company came when Dim Sum Warriors was made into a big Chinese language musical that toured 25 cities in China. We were lucky enough to get the opportunity to work with top global talents on the musical—like Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Du Yun, legendary Chinese theatre producer Stan Lai Sheng-Chuan, and US-based Singaporean theatre director Mei Ann Teo.
The experience of tens of thousands of Chinese kids in theatres all over China screaming the names of Baozi, Xiajiao, and Shaomai, laughing, and then continuing to talk about the characters and story even after the show made it so clear that this was something special.
The press in China said that we had made Chinese culture cool. People told us it was a really unusual Chinese pop culture experience—familiar and yet surprising, and very funny. This gave us the conviction to find a way to share this special experience with a wider audience.
As an educator, Yen Yen firmly believes that to be able to tap into children’s interests and then inspire them, the learning that gets unleashed is much more powerful than simply completing a set curriculum. That’s why in creating the content for Dim Sum Warriors, we listen a lot to children, and get inspired by many of the ideas that the kids in our livestreams dream up.
I love the punny character names, and the localised, relatable situations from the stories. What inspires the adorable food-themed characters, and the name “Dim Sum Warriors”?
When our daughter was born in New York, like any dutiful Asian parent, we started looking for Chinese stories for her. But many Chinese storybooks in the bookstores felt, to us, like they were written from an adult perspective, and were primarily there to deliver very traditional moral values, such as filial piety, etc.
The books our daughter would instinctively reach for, over and over again, were the silly stories of Sandra Boynton, Mo Willems and Cressida Cowell. The funny rhymes and situations were what engaged her. The books that got her to laugh also got her to read more.
When we started to make the Little Dim Sum Warriors series, we wanted the series to be equally funny in Mandarin and English, and be such that kids could connect with situations that they might find themselves in. This meant a lot of observing what our daughter and her friends were doing: Seeing how our daughter loved pretending to “work” (like her parents) led to the story “I’m Very Busy”, and seeing how learning to ride a bike was a real emotional roller coaster for our daughter’s friends led to “My Way is the Best”.
As for why the name “Dim Sum Warriors”… Well, we just love dim sum! From young, it was always a treat for us to have the whole family get together, and point and pick whatever little delights would roll by the table. We lived in New York for 20 years, and whenever Singaporeans got together, we would often choose a noisy dim sum restaurant.
We were also big fans of kung fu films, and in New York, Yen Yen was also practicing Shaolin kung fu with teachers who were actually from Shaolin in Henan!
So when it came to creating a series for kids, we smushed our 3 loves—dim sum, kung fu and comics—together to create Dim Sum Warriors. It seemed especially meaningful as “dim sum” in Mandarin is 点心, which can be translated as “a little bit of heart”. So our heroes are warriors with a little bit of heart!
Chinese can be a difficult language to learn, more so for non-Mandarin-speaking children learning Chinese as a second language. What is translanguaging, for a multilingual country like Singapore, and how does it help children learn language?
One of the most important—yet overlooked—aspects of learning a second language effectively is what is called “the affective filter”, i.e. the feelings and emotions that we bring to the language that we’re learning. The lower the affective filter, the less fear and anxiety we feel about the language.
We all know, for example, that when we have high anxiety in the language, we avoid speaking it, and that naturally leads to fewer opportunities for practice, which leads to less effective learning. The more positive feelings we have about using the language, the more efficient our learning becomes.
Yet, we often don’t prioritise getting our kids to enjoy the language. We become strict about following all sorts of rules, and we expect them to use it simply because we tell them it will be helpful later in life.
In Singapore, for many of us, our natural state is actually “multilingual”. Take Singlish, for example: When we mix languages, we’re crossing all sorts of barriers, and we’re making the languages our own; we feel the most comfortable, and also, we laugh the most. This state of relaxation and enjoyment when we mix languages is actually a great starting point for learning Chinese.
For many families in Singapore, the home language has become English, and instead of seeing it as some cultural dividing line, we should see English as providing familiar signs on a map, so that our kids are less fearful and anxious as they navigate a new linguistic landscape. The more children can make connections between the new language and the languages they already know, the more the language becomes their own, rather than a foreign language. In applied linguistics, this creative mixing and mapping of languages is called “translanguaging”.
I know many wonderful teachers who have been using English purposefully in the teaching of Mandarin. For example, using English to brainstorm first, so that kids can fully express their ideas, and then translate them into Chinese; using the English equivalent to explain difficult vocabulary; reading texts in English first and then in Chinese. These are great ways to build more confidence in Chinese and gradually, our children can express themselves more and more confidently in the target language.
Used purposefully, English is not a “crutch” but a really useful “tool” for learning other languages. If we are honest, we will recognize this as logical and natural. Yet, too often we insist on artificially separating the languages.
In fact, being comfortably bilingual and multilingual expresses who we are as Singaporeans. I feel that for kids in Singapore, the goal for learning Chinese is not to sound like a “native speaker” from China—just like we should not feel compelled to have only American or British accents when we speak English. Rather, we should aspire to be effective multilinguals—fearless about making mistakes, and enthusiastic about using languages to communicate across cultures.
Just like Chinese, music is a language worth learning, but some aspects (e.g., Music Theory), still require rote learning. What are some (traditional/unconventional) ways parents can encourage and motivate their children to learn Chinese?
John Dewey, the father of progressive education, talks about how important it is for children to have that spark of interest, and it is that interest which will sustain their motivation to put in the hard work necessary for learning anything—whether it is music, languages or other subjects.
Without sparking that interest, it’s actually quite painful for parents, because we have to supervise the rote learning, deal with kids’ reflexive resistance, and often get into unnecessarily fraught relationships. But if our children’s interest is piqued and encouraged, they will naturally put in the hard work.
I see that all the time in my daughter’s learning. She recently spent months drawing, and learning how to animate because it was a project she cared passionately about. Interest-led hard work leads to more learning. Pushing kids to work hard on something they hate leads to resistance and resentment.
It’s very important to us that kids don’t experience Chinese merely through their textbooks, which is why we put in so much effort in creating pleasurable contact points with Chinese, e.g. through Chinese comics and cartoons; meeting creators who make art in Chinese; bedtime reading aloud in Chinese so that kids associate reading in Chinese with enjoyment and intimacy; fun performances in Chinese; playing with Mandarin speakers, etc. These pleasurable experiences will provide the motivation and fuel to put in the hard work of learning. It’s the same for music, and any other discipline, really.
One way to learn language is via nursery rhymes, Music & Movement, and song lyrics. Besides reading, Dim Sum Warriors also encourages learners to draw their own bilingual comics. Why is this creative process important?
First, the more pleasurable experiences our children can have with the subject matter, the more inspired they become to put in the hard work later on. Nursery rhymes, music and movement, and songs are highly pleasurable experiences. Drawing is also a highly pleasurable experience!
Second, the more kids can experience the knowledge as a social tool—something that allows them to feel like part of a group or to make friends—the more motivated they get. Nursery rhymes and songs are cultural knowledge that allow us to be part of a group. Drawing together with others becomes a social experience. Having parents, teachers and friends come around and talk about the drawing also makes it a social experience. This really motivates kids to see the social purpose of their learning.
Third, the act of creation involves absorbing knowledge and making it our own, for our own purposes. The knowledge becomes your own. There is nothing more powerful than creating something in the learning process.
Why comics? It’s because kids love comics and are never intimidated by it. It’s “multi-modal”—it combines drawing with text with narrative structure—and this allows kids to express some things they are thinking in visuals even if they haven’t found the words to say it. It’s just an incredibly accessible form—you can make comics simply with pen and paper; you don’t need fancy equipment, fancy training or even fancy words.
What would you like to say to aspiring artists and polyglots?
Let’s help to bridge differences for greater peace in the world.
Knowing different languages helps us communicate better with fellow Singaporeans who are more comfortable in another language.
– SINGAPO人: Discovering Chinese Singaporean Culture exhibition at Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre
Language is such a beautiful thing: Language reminds us of our history and our culture, and it also helps increase our tolerance, respect, and understanding of other languages.
Regardless of the language you are learning, the language of your culture, let us share it with our future generations in meaningful ways; through bonding, and enduring hobbies; through fun learning activities; and through the songs and music of our time.
I hope this post is helpful for you! See you again, for our next post!