Chatting With: Dr. Woo Yen Yen, Pedagogy Expert & Founder of Yumcha Studios

Hi, Dr Woo Yen Yen, thank you for agreeing to speak with us. Tell us a bit about yourself. Share with us the backstory of what inspired you to start Yumcha Studios. 

It’s because of something I’ve noticed all my life. 

I grew up in Singapore, where, after graduating, I taught in a secondary school. I then went to Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York, where I got my doctorate, and then became a Professor specializing in curriculum studies. After nearly 20 years of working in New York, I moved to Taiwan at the invitation of National Central University. 

In every city I’ve worked in, I’ve met teachers, parents and schools who want their kids to learn both English and Mandarin—because they’re the languages likely to be used most commonly across the world. 

Dr. Woo and her daughter. Photo credit: Stefen Chow

But what I’ve noticed is, even after learning them for many years, many kids end up feeling like they are just too shy to speak the language. Some of them even rationalize it by saying to themselves, “Oh, I’m just bad at Chinese,” or “I’m just bad at languages.” It’s a known phenomenon called “foreign language anxiety”. 

I understand this very intimately. Because that’s how I used to see myself! I remember back in school, I got so frustrated with Chinese that I tore up my Chinese textbook… only to tearfully tape it all back together later.  

I began to research why this happens, because I didn’t want this to happen to my daughter. So I looked at the latest in not just language education research, but also pedagogical methods and education technology. 

But besides being a professor, I’m also a filmmaker and writer. New York has a habit of making people wear multiple hats! We know so many screenwriters/tennis coaches or opera singers/waiters… Anyway, my husband and I created a graphic novel series called Dim Sum Warriors about kung fu-fighting dumplings, and in 2017, it got adapted into a giant Chinese musical that premiered in Shanghai, with music by a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. 

Dim Sum Warriors, The Musical (Shanghai, 2017). Photo credit: Stefen Chow

The musical then toured 25 cities in China, playing all these giant theatres, and I saw how enthusiastic the kids were about the story and characters. 

Dim Sum Warriors, The Musical (Shanghai, 2017). Photo credit: Stefen Chow

And then it hit me… what if I could combine the appeal of my funny dumplings with what I know about education?  

That’s when I quit academia and set up Yumcha Studios—so we could build Dim Sum Warriors into a method of learning languages that kids actually like.  It’s really the culmination of my years of experience both as a professor of education and a multimedia creator. 

How did you come up with your Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Doodle Dates? We’d love to hear more about how it came together. 

So my husband and co-founder, Colin Goh, is a great cartoonist. He draws all the Dim Sum Warriors books. 

And ever since our daughter was a toddler, they’ve been doodling side-by-side. It’s the most precious daddy-daughter time! They just sit there and doodle based on an idea, and compare what they’ve drawn. There’s no actual “teaching”, but there’s a lot of learning going on—for both of them!—just through spending time together and watching each other. 

This practice of drawing together without judgment has been really incredible for my daughter’s development. Look at her drawing now—she’s only 12!  

Photo credit: Yakuza Baby

Drawing has actually made her more observant, and not so easily distracted by devices. In fact, I would even say drawing has helped her ability to focus. 

I explain it much more thoroughly in these articles I wrote:  

When we started Dim Sum Warriors, we wanted to include community participation, but not make it like some stuffy old class. That’s when we thought, why not get kids to doodle along with Colin? It worked for our daughter—she learned a lot without her feeling like she was “learning”.  

So I planned it such that the kids are suggesting ideas for Colin to draw—which they love!—and I got qualified teachers to translate their crazy creations into Chinese. And so far, it’s been great fun!  

We recently asked the kids who join our Doodle Dates to describe what the class is—is it a Chinese class with drawing? An art class with Chinese?—and their response was, “It’s a crazy, everything, Chinese, art, funny class”.  Their emphasis was on “funny”, which tickled me greatly. 

And for those who haven’t seen or tried the app yet, give us a quick rundown of what it does. 

Do go and try it! It’s the best time to try it because you can get 6-months subscription free now until June 7th, 2021. The Dim Sum Warriors App helps improve both Chinese and English using funny comic stories about 3 silly dumplings. You can also hear actors acting out the stories, and then record your own reading, and get feedback on fluency and pronunciation through our reading evaluation tech. Of course, there are also games and vocabulary pop-ups. We update the stories and content every month. 

Families who used the app in the past week have left us comments like, “My daughter has been practicing her Chinese for an unprecedented amount of time!, “It’s amazing to see them reading aloud to earn the full 3 hearts”, “Oooh… This Dim Sum Warriors is surprisingly cute!”

How does the Dim Sum Warriors bilingual learning system differ from what other ed-tech companies are offering and meet market needs?  

We are meeting the market need for a way of learning 2nd or foreign languages that is sustainable and enjoyable for kids. If kids don’t enjoy the content and method, then no matter how much drilling, yelling or forcing you do, they’ll be turned off. They might recall some stuff, but it’ll fade away. 

That’s why the number one focus of Dim Sum Warriors is great stories. If kids like the story, they’re willing to work hard to understand it. That’s why Harry Potter managed to get so many kids around the world reading the books, even if English wasn’t their first language. 

On top of the stories and adorable dumpling characters, we have built our pedagogical methods on cutting-edge literacy development research such as translanguaging, so that we get kids to use their facility with their home language as a bridge to acquire the 2nd language. 

This really helps to reduce fear and increase interest in the language-learning process. The vast majority of edtech products are about delivering existing content and traditional methods in faster and more efficient ways. But many traditional methods and content are just not working anymore. Our patent-pending approach is about aligning content to kids’ existing interests to increase motivation. Also, our curriculum incorporates all the new global competency requirements that are now part of the OECD’S PISA standards that every school system around the world is benchmarked against. To date, I haven’t encountered any other education tech product that’s doing what we’re doing. So, yeah, underneath all those funny stories about silly dumplings are a lot of education infrastructure. 

And don’t just take our word for it! Our system has been independently certified for high pedagogical quality by the experts at Education Alliance Finland, the world’s leading edtech impact verification agency. 

Where do you think the greatest opportunities are for the meeting place of technology + education?

Real and meaningful education must open kids up to new experiences and get kids curious to learn more. To me, anything that shuts down curiosity is not education.  

Technology is a tool – as long as it serves the purpose of increasing curiosity and the desire to learn, it’s meaningful edtech. If not, it’s not useful. 

I’ll give you an example—my daughter’s school had subscribed to a reading edtech program that provided thousands of books online. Her teacher would assign her to read the books and then answer comprehension questions. BUT those thousands of books were all of low quality, and after a while, she began hating those assignments because it was a chore to read those books. 

Technology helps education in two important ways:  

  1. Content can be delivered in different media; and 
  2. We can make learning experiences simultaneously available to millions of people. 

With Dim Sum Warriors, we can incorporate text, visuals, audio, animation, reading evaluation software, and multiple languages into a single mobile app. So achieving the multiple goals of reading, oracy, listening, and visual literacy have all become more convenient, and available to millions in their homes and schools.  

What trends in education technology excite you? 

Business-wise, it is an incredible time to be in the edech ecosystem in Southeast Asia, one of the world’s fastest growing internet markets. Then there’s also the pandemic, which has disrupted traditional school schedules and accelerated the appetite for education tech and also internet infrastructure development. 

But what’s truly exciting for me is not that edtech will help kids pass more tests or get higher scores, but more about the potential of edtech to facilitate the development of 21st century skills like collaboration, creative thinking, critical thinking, and communication, and global competence. We can play games with people far away from us, we can collaborate with them, learn their languages, and work on problems together. I’m truly excited by that. 

We want to thank you again, Dr Woo Yen Yen, for doing this interview. For our readers who might be interested to learn more about Yumcha Studios and its Dim Sum Warriors Bilingual Comic App, where can they contact you? 

I can be contacted through my web site www.dimsumwarriors.com and email [email protected]. I check all my emails personally. 

So feel free to email! And if you have not tried the Dim Sum Warriors app, you must! You can download our App at: Google Play: https://bit.ly/33R8QqP  or App Store: https://apple.co/2G4mAGh.  

It’s free to download, but you’ll need to subscribe to unlock all the stories. There are new stories every month! 

Right now, we’re giving away FREE 6-month subscriptions at: https://www.dimsumwarriors.com/learn-chinese-language-dim-sum-warriors-app/ until July 31st, 2021! 

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We take our responsibilities seriously as a provider of free parenting resources. Our published articles are therefore written based on evidence-based information parents can rely on. Parenthood is hard. But it’s also the most rewarding. Our first goal is thus to make sure our content is concise, accurate and accessible.