What’s “Sticky” About Learning Chinese the Bilingual Way?


By Dr. Woo Yen Yen:

Did you know that the English word “wear” is expressed in different ways in Mandarin, depending on what you’re wearing?

As someone who grew up not being strong in Mandarin and stronger in English, I love designing short “sticky” lessons that help learners have quick ways for sticking new knowledge to their pre-knowledge – like velcro!  Connecting L2 knowledge to L1 knowledge is an especially sticky way to do this.  Some call this the “translanguaging” way. I call it learning Chinese the bilingual way.

The differences in the two languages might not occur to someone who’s monolingual English or Mandarin, because their set of pre-knowledge is quite different.

For example, in the Dim Sum Warriors Club, we were reading the story the “Dim Sum Fashion Show”  and realized that there are at least three different words in Mandarin that all mean to “wear” – each one is used based on what you’re wearing!

穿 (chuān) – for pieces of clothing with a hole that you get into

戴 (dài) – for accessories that go on the body

披 (pī) – for capes, cloaks and jackets that go over your back


The questions that bilingual learners have show what pre-knowledge they are trying to connect the new knowledge with.

For example, our learners asked:

  • Why does 穿 have the character of a tooth in the word –  “牙“?

  • When you carry a schoolbag, do you “戴 (dài)” the schoolbag because it goes on the body?

Do you know the answers?

The first question stumped our Chinese teacher, 萧老师 for a moment, but she had this explanation: it’s because mice have teeth that eat clothing, making holes in them so that it makes sense that the word 穿 (chuān) used with clothing with a hole you get into, like shirts and pants, has a tooth within the character.

For question #2, 萧老师 explained that for a schoolbag, even if you only use one shoulder to carry it, the word to use is “背 (bēi)” as schoolbags are meant to go on your back.

Encouraging learners to connect new knowledge to whatever pre-knowledge they have creates a kind of knowledge velcro that they can stick their new knowledge to. Otherwise it doesn’t stick. The pre-knowledge can be something in their first language, something they have seen before, or something strange and silly.

I also enjoy setting creative ways to review what’s learned so that it doesn’t feel like homework but is a product that the students are eager to see themselves.  This creates a visual velcro for the new knowledge. So the drawing prompt for our young artists was:


And for those who need a little help:  chuān uniform, dài hat, cape”.

These young students, because we learned this knowledge in a pleasurable,  bilingual and “sticky” way – will remember this when they next need to use the verb “wear” in Mandarin.

Here are our drawings. I (Yen Yen) drew the first one followed by artworks by ZZ, Alison and Benedict:


How about creating some “sticky” knowledge velcro, visual velcro, emotional velcro for the learning of a second language?

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