Monthly Archives: January 2013

Comic Book Snacks that Talk Back in Two Languages

Third grader Finn Myers (Photo: Yen Yen Woo)

Third grader Finn Myers (Photo: Yen Yen Woo)

The other day, I was in Chinatown in New York City, eating dim sum with Yen Yen Woo and Colin Goh. They’re a married couple, transplants from Singapore.

For reasons that’ll soon become clear, I couldn’t help imagining that those little Chinese snacks we were eating were…alive. Now, some Asian food items really are alive when you put them in your mouth—but that’s a different story. The dishes we we’d ordered weren’t moving, except for the fact that I’d just viewed them in another form—walking, talking and fighting.

Here’s a taste of Goh and Woo’s creation, Dim Sum Warriors: “Their bravery and skill have inspired millions worldwide, while the mere mention of their names causes enemies to quiver like tofu.”

Dim Sum Warriors is a comic book that started as an iPad app. It started online, and now is out in book form, the reverse of most tech-savvy comic book series.

Goh and Woo created Dim Sum Warriors partly for their daughter, Kai Yen Goh. She’s learning to understand both English and Chinese by using the app.

“We felt especially because we were bringing up a daughter in America we wanted something that would represent her mixed-up cultural heritage,” says Goh.

On an iPad, you can read Dim Sum Warriors in English or in Chinese. Or, you can flip between the two languages. If you want to hear the audio, you tap a word balloon. If you hold your finger on the balloon, you get a translation—script and audio.

(Courtesy: Dimsum Warriors/Yumcha Studios)

Click to view a larger clip. (Courtesy: Dimsum Warriors/Yumcha Studios)

Nick Sousanis is a big fan of Dim Sum Warriors. He teaches a class at Columbia’s Teachers College on using comics in classrooms. He says the Dim Sum Warriors is that it makes clever use of some relatively new behaviour patterns.

“If you read the New York Times on the web and you want to know what a word means, you click on it,” says Sousanis. Dim Sum Warriors operates like that. “You can see the action you know what the characters are doing, you see the word. You can associate the word with what that action is. It just synergistically holds together.”

Kids seem to like it too. Third-grader Finn Myers, who lives in New York, says he’s read Dim Sum Warriors “at least” seven times.

“It’s like you’re doing two things at once but you don’t even know,” says Finn. “You’re learning the language and reading.”

Now, that’s something of dream for language teachers—distracting students with a strong narrative so they want to read on.

Of course, it may not work on all kids. But Finn’s teacher Kyla Huang says Dim Sum Warriors will be a valuable addition to many classrooms. Huang says Chinese teachers in the United States do more than teach. They’re “also authors” of teaching materials because there aren’t enough officially approved materials available in the US.

It helps that Dim Sum Warriors is an iPad app—iPads and other tablets are already a big hit in many schools

Yen Yen Woo tried out Dim sum Warriors on some other 3rd graders. She said they liked the idea of Chinese food items talking to each other. But something was missing.

“They all said ‘what about scallion pancakes…and spring rolls?’” says Woo. “They also said teachers should have them read it just before lunch because it’s going to make them very hungry.”

It’s true, you do get hungry. But you also want to read to learn how the likes of Crown Prince Roast Pork Bao fares in the face of the evil Colonel Quicky Noodle. (Woo and Goh describe him as a mixture of Robert Downey Jr and a mutant pot of instant ramen.)

Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Colin Goh’s favorite character is the pompously-named Master Phoenix Claw, who’s actually nothing more than a chicken foot. But in dim sum menus, chicken feet are described as phoenix claws. “I always envisaged him as a sort of used car salesman,” says Goh. “He’s always trying to pull a fast one on everyone.”

There’s the blend again of Chinese and American culture. Who could be more American than a car salesman? What could be more Chinese than a menu item with an over-the-top name? Put them together and you get something new.

“A lot of the comics in the past have portrayed Asians in this stereotypical way, like you’re either dragon lady or the mysterious Zen master,” says Woo. “We really wanted our child to grow up being confident of her own culture and to see all these character as being part of the universe.”

And so in Dim Sum Warriors there is American-style teenage introspection, but also kung fu fights, albeit enacted by dumplings. Just the idea of a comic book is American, or at least not Chinese. Most Asian comic books are Japanese, though comic book scene in Taiwan is picking up pace.

It’s from Japan, too, that the idea of talking food comes. The Japanese have featured various personified food items in comics and cartoons for years. But with its breadth of characters, Dim Sum Warriors takes things a few wacky steps further.

Even though you can now read Dim Sum Warriors the old-fashioned way, you need to experience it as originally conceived, on an iPad, for the full effect.

To grasp the difference, Colin Goh casts his mind back to when he was teenager, obsessed with Japanese pop culture. He taught himself the language in a painstaking way, “by sitting there with manga and three dictionaries and trying to figure out what they were saying.” The iPad, he says, “enabled us to make the comic into what I would have wanted back when I was 15 years old.”

Another advantage is that apps debut in scores of countries—less of a distribution problem than books. So far, though, there are fewer Chinese using Dim Sum Warriors to learn English than the other way round. Woo and Goh hope to change that with a visit to China later this year.

They even have the idea of turning their fantasy into a stage musical—another American genre making inroads in China.

Here’s a previous post and podcast featuring Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo. They talk about their role as editor of a dictionary of Singlish, the mashed-up street patois that all self-respecting Singaporeans use.



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Language Life and Death in New York City

Linguist Mark Turin rides the New York subway’s 7 Train to explore a few of the city’s 800 languages. Some of these languages thrive, at least briefly. Some survive, in spite of the odds. Some live on through the words they loan to English and other immigrant tongues. But nearly all of them eventually die.

This is the final part of a BBC series called Our Language in Your Hands. In the first part, Turin returns to a village in Nepal where two decades ago he learned and documented the Thangmi language. In the second part, he’s in South Africa to assess how its languages are faring nearly 20 years after the end of Apartheid.

Here’s a related BBC post on part three. And here’s a 2012 story that we did on a Garifuna language music project that was sponsored by the New York-based Endangered Language Alliance.



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New Roles for Old Languages in South Africa

Linguist Mark Turin reports from South Africa, whose post-Apartheid constitution designates eleven languages as official. Since that constitution came into effect in 1997, English has become more popular than ever, Afrikaans has re-invented itself, while the government’s efforts to raise the status of languages like Xhosa and Zulu have succeeded– up to a point.

This is the second of a three-part series Turin did for the BBC. Part one, on the changing linguistic landscape in Nepal, is here.



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Caught Between Two Languages

School students from the United States now living Zacatecas State, Mexico (Photo: Myles Estey)

School students from the United States now living Zacatecas State, Mexico (Photo: Myles Estey)

Here’s a guest post from Mexico-based reporter Myles Estey…

It’s Saturday morning in the rural Mexican state of Zacatecas and we are in English class. Antonio Acosta gives basic lessons to 35 teachers. “In! Between! Over! On!” he shouts out during one exercise. English levels vary, so Acosta is reviewing some of the basics.

In the class is Nora Santana. She can speak English fine, but feels rusty, too. She’s here to feel more comfortable with the language in order to better connect with her new students, those who grew up in the United States and who are having trouble keeping up with classes in Spanish. “They feel so confused,” said Santana. “They don’t understand everything I teach in Spanish.”

Other teachers, like Eduardo García, speak very little English and hit communication walls quickly with new students, especially those now arriving unable to speak Spanish at all.

In recent years, Acosta, an education official here, has witnessed the influx of school-aged kids returning to Mexico. They arrive with their parents, who have left the United States because they are undocumented or couldn’t find work. Acosta says the kids can feel disoriented in a Mexican classroom—like foreigners, but in what is supposedly their own nation.

Now, Acosta is pioneering a project to get Mexican teachers more accustomed to English. While some believe that the money might be better spent other ways, Acosta says that English classes are critical to help teachers and their students adjust.

Mexican teachers learning English take a break from class (Photo: Myles Estey)

“If the teachers learn English, the basic English level, they are going to use this kind of tool to communicate with the children that are coming from the United States,” said Acosta.

The class is best suited for teachers like 28-year-old Ari Rodríguez.

Rodríguez says she can have a tough time communicating with some of her new students from the US and keeps English crib notes handy. She mentions one newcomer, Juan, though he goes by John in the US. He is a soft-spoken 13-year-old, who just moved here from Texas. But when you hear Juan and Rodríguez speak, it’s clear that Juan’s Spanish is improving fast.

Juan is getting good grades here, too, except in Spanish and History. He still cannot articulate his answers to his teachers. “Its kind of hard to explain it,” Juan says. “Like, when I don’t know how to say the words, I just try to explain it to them.”

But for most students, speaking isn’t the hardest part—it’s classroom comprehension.

Meet Ashley. She’s 11, and born and raised in Southern California. She just moved to Zacatecas with her parents, who were undocumented in the US. Ashley speaks Spanish perfectly, but has always done her reading and writing in English. She is struggling to read in Spanish and finds the overall transition “weird.”

Ashley’s younger brother, Yoel, is also having a hard time at it. But he’s relieved to be here with his older sister, and a cousin is here, too. Being together, speaking English in the schoolyard, it makes their new life in Mexico easier. And they keep in touch in English with their friends back in the US over Facebook.

Luis Roberto Castañeda directs Zacatecas’ Migration Institute. He says of the 13,000 or so kids who have lived in the US and are now in the Zacatecas school system, nearly all have some difficulty at school. And there are no national programs in Mexico to attend to these students’ needs. Castañeda says that when the US-born students cannot fully understand classes, they do mental translations back to English. It slows them down.

Like Castañeda, Acosta believes that his pilot project is more than learning English: It represents an effort to help US-born children feel more welcome in Mexico and tune their teachers to the fact that their students straddle two worlds.



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Bringing Back Nepal’s Minority Languages

Indigenous Newa girls in Nepal (Photo: Krish Dulal)

Indigenous Newa girls in Nepal (Photo: Krish Dulal)

Linguist Mark Turin returns to Nepal, where he learned and documented the Thangmi language. Spoken by 30,000 people, Thangmi has many unique expressions but it is imperiled. The Nepalese government is trying to protect minority languages by introducing them into schools, but it may be too late: the children of many Thangmi speakers are choosing to speak more mainstream languages.



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