Chinese New Year is Coming!

Chinese New Year (a.k.a the lunar new year) is right around the corner and I am starting to see Chinese New Year activities for Mandarin classes pop up in my Twitter feed. Like many teachers, I think any good Mandarin Chinese class includes culture. When it comes to incorporating lessons about Chinese culture in Mandarin language class, it is a challenge to teach both language and culture effectively.

When I am planning lessons, one of the most important things that I think about is: “how is my lesson built around an outcome that is not language?” Yes, you read that correctly. We learn language by attending to meaning. We do not learn language by memorizing vocabulary and plugging those words into grammar structures that we have learned explicitly. Language acquisition is too complex to be broken down into pages in a textbook. To put it simply, language acquisition comes from learners attempting to comprehend the target language during communication. Simply put a lesson about Chinese New Year can’t just be coloring in a picture of a dragon if the students are going to learn any Chinese.

Stories to Learn For Chinese New Year

So what to do? One option is to build a lesson around a story. The book pictured below,团圆 (A New Year’s Reunion) tells the story of a family’s Chinese New Year. I like it because it talks about not only Chinese New Year, but also how many families in modern China are separated by distance. Often one or both parents works in a different part of the country. The only drawback of using a book like 团圆 is that the language in it is fairly complex. It is not repetitive and it covers a few topics that are not common topics for children. These include going to the barbershop, and painting a door. Basing a lesson around this story would only be suitable for children who are intermediate Mandarin Chinese learners.

A good way to make sure that students are focusing on the meaning of the story during class is to ask them “what do you think will happen next?” This may sound like a fairly complicated question for students. Really the only structure that they need to have acquired is 我觉得 (I think/feel)* and from there describe what they think will happen next.

photo of book cover of A New Year's Reunion
A New Year’s Reunion 团圆 book cover

Tasks for Chinese New Year

For beginner students, an option is to choose one aspect of Chinese New Year and focus on that. For example, 2018 ushers in the year of the dog, so a lesson could be about around dogs. In another post, I wrote about doing a task centered around pets. The students could easily make a poster about how to take care of a dog. Or students and the teacher could create a simple story about a dog, one with short sentences and known vocabulary words that is comprehensible for the students. If this sounds like only a very shallow connection between class content and the festival, it is. But that is okay! If our goal is language learning, this is the kind of compromise that teachers need to make. We have to make compromises to ensure that students are getting enough comprehensible input in Mandarin Chinese so they they can acquire the language.

Teaching Culture On Its Own

What if that is really not enough culture? Is a task enough to give students exposure to Chinese culture? If the answer to these questions is no, then it is fine to take a class or two to talk about Chinese New Year in English. Each program will have to decide for itself what the priorities are. A good option to use for an English-language lesson on Chinese New Year is Grace Lin’s Bringing in the New Year. In the book, the words for family members are in Chinese, so there is at least a little bit of the language in the lesson.

What do you think about incorporating Chinese culture into Mandarin classes? Share your thoughts in the comments.

*I’m borrowing this idea from Terry Waltz’s TPRS with Chinese Characteristics

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