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Food and Flags Revisited

What’s Wrong with Food and Flags?

When it comes to language learning and intercultural communication, “food and flags” have a pretty bad reputation. The thinking goes that talking about food or the flags of countries is too shallow. Treating food and flags as sufficient representations for cultures is just not enough to do any place justice. While I support wanting more rigor for language and cultural education, I think that maybe food has gotten short-changed as a topic for the classroom (I’ll leave flags for another time). Students can definitely learn something about a culture through food, while learning the language at the same time.

What’s Important?

Teachers who are not from the cultures that they teach about have to admit that we are not in charge of what that culture thinks is important. Even if you are from a culture whose language you teach, you have to admit that not everyone has to agree with you about what is important :). Food is a huge part of Chinese culture. It’s integral to the major holidays. It is medicine. It is how friends and family members show affection. To say that food is a shallow topic for China rather misses the point.

An Example of Food and Flags Done Better

“Is this Chinese food?” is a lesson that I have done with adult students. I would also do a version with kids, but perhaps a shorter version. In this class, I show the students photos of different foods and ask, is this Chinese food? Most of the photos are in fact, photos of foods that you can easily find in China. Many of them, however, are not foods that come to mind when students think of “Chinese food.”

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Is this Chinese food?

The language used in this class is very basic. There are only a few phrases and words that the students need for the whole hour-long class. This is really great for beginner/novice students because they only need to know how to say “是” or “不是” in order to participate. They could also just nod their heads or do a thumbs up or a thumbs down too.

The class also works for students who have more knowledge of Chinese. The class, like any good immersion-style class, is really about the content. Just because a student has a good knowledge about the Chinese language does not mean that they know everything about the country or the culture. It is also a good chance for those who may not have strong language skills, but know a lot about the place, to show off what they know.

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This is what I like to call “Mall Chicken.” Is it Chinese food?

Food as a Gateway to More

The slides that I show the students are mostly of foods that are commonly found in China. The takeaway of the lesson is that there are many foods in China, such as corn on the cob, egg tarts, kebabs, that students might not think of as Chinese food, but actually are. Their presence and popularity in China alludes to stories from history, trade and the Chinese multi-ethic state. Not too shallow, right?

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Is bread Chinese food?

More on teaching Chinese culture:

Chinese Paper Cutting

Chinese New Year

Movietalk with Bao

For anyone who is interested, here are some photos of flags made out of their nation’s famous foods.

Twister in Chinese Class

Class Content for Little Kids

One of the challenges of planning my classes is integrating what I know many parents want their children to learn, with what I know about how students learn. Many parents want to make sure that their children are learning the “basics” of Chinese, especially if their kids are young. This usually means things like numbers, colors, body parts, and food.

Learning Chinese with Games

Anyone who has watched this video knows that Lotus Chinese Learning classes are not about memorizing lists of vocabulary words. You also know that I’m a big believer in making sure that students are having fun in Chinese class. There is good evidence that students learn more easily when they are relaxed and having fun. In other words, learning Chinese can be all fun and games. Luckily, there are ways to integrate what parents want their kids to learn with an input-based curriculum.

How to Use Twister in Chinese Class

The game of Twister is a fun game that almost everyone knows how to play. This saves time in class since we do not have to spend that much time explaining the rules to the students. The game is all about colors and body parts, with right and left thrown in. When playing Twister for the first time or with a group of novices, I will write out the English translations of the words that we are using on the board. If the students already know they their colors pretty well, then all I have to write is hand, foot, left and right.

If you have not played Twister since childhood, let me warn you that the mats have gotten tiny now! Just kidding, of course it is us who have gotten bigger J. If you have more than a few kids per class, you might need more than one mat so the kids have enough room.

By playing Twister, the kids will hear the words for colors, hand, foot, and right and left over and over again. It is this type of input that will help them acquire these words in the long run. Additionally, by watching the students, the teacher will also be able to see if the students understand these words.

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What Do We Need to Learn When We Learn How to Write?

What Do Students Need from a Writing Curriculum?

Learning how to write Chinese is intimidating to many students, especially if they start learning the language later on in life. Most students find the prospect of learning how to correctly write several thousand Chinese characters extremely daunting. Like language itself, writing is highly complex. Learning how to write in another language is not just a process of learning how to write words and then stringing them together on a page. In order to understand how to best learn how to write in Chinese, we should take a look at the different types of writing that we need to do.

Everyday Writing Purposes

What kind of writing do you do every day? Be honest. Texting, emails, maybe a grocery list, a to-do list? That is pretty much it, right? This type of writing is pretty straightforward. To do this kind of writing in Chinese requires knowledge of how to input Chinese in a phone or computer (i.e. pinyin). You could do this type of writing without even knowing how to form characters, especially if you use an app on your phone for things like lists.

Writing emails and texts doesn’t come with high standards for beauty and a clever turn of phrase. Writing emails for business has a little more pressure than writing emails to friends, but generally you don’t have to be Hemingway or Yu Hua to write a good one.

Writing and Register

Writing for work is more demanding than writing for everyday purposes. Writers need not only to know how to convey their meaning, but also the knowledge of how to do so in a way that it is appropriate for work. The technical word for this is register. In a nutshell, we use different registers for different types of communication. It is generally accepted that different registers coordinate with different levels of formality.

Like writing for work, writing for academic purposes also requires a different level of formality than writing a text to a friend. Academic writing is probably more formal than writing for business. Writing for art, that is writing something like a novel or a poem is probably the most demanding type of writing. Very few people are good at it in their first language, and even fewer can write beautifully in their second language. Vladimir Nobokov comes to mind as a great writer of English, although it was not his first language. He might be the exception that proves the rule.

Conclusions

What does this all mean for language instruction? Many language classes have writing for academic purposed as one of the goals and requirements. There is nothing wrong with wanting students to be able to write a good research paper in the target language. Most of the writing that people do however, is the simple stuff, like texts, emails and grocery lists.

This is good news for a proficiency-oriented curriculum. While I do think it is important for students to be able to properly handwrite characters, that skill is not necessary for 95% of the writing that most people do. Academic writing is pretty difficult, but it is just not something that the vast majority of language students will be expected to do. A better use of students’ time is focusing on the everyday types of writing they will actually need.

More on learning to write in Chinese:

Making sandpaper characters

Where to start if you Want to Learn How to Write Chinese

 

Making Sandpaper Characters

Making Sandpaper Characters

Parents and teachers familiar with the Montessori approach probably know about the sandpaper letters. Sandpaper letters are exactly what they sound like. The letters are formed out of sandpaper and glued to small boards. Students trace the letters with their fingers as they practice their sounds. They build up a muscle memory of how to write the letters as well.

Are there Too Many Characters?

There are only 26 letters in the English alphabet, but many thousands of Chinese characters*. This sounds like bad news for making sets of sandpaper characters, but I will argue that using sandpaper characters in Chinese class is still doable. Firstly, students do not need to learn all the characters at the same time. For a one hour per week Chinese enrichment class, a reasonable goal is learning about 50-100 words per 14 week semester. Even if we used sandpaper characters for each word (which we might not), that is only 50-100 for a whole semester. Seems much more manageable, right?

We can still use the sandpaper technique with Chinese, even though we are dealing with many more characters than letters. Making these things, however, is still not easy. It is pretty time-consuming, so I no longer lend out my materials to students and their families. So here is a step-by-step guide to making sandpaper letters at home. You don’t even need to speak Chinese in order to make these for your kids!

The Step by Step Process

Step 1: Get the materials.

Everything that you need to make sandpaper characters you can get at Michaels or similar crafts store. You will need: graphite paper, stiff paperboard that is still thin enough to cut, a list of characters that you want to make (with pinyin), glue (Elmer’s is fine), scissors, sand, a paint brush, a marker, a computer and printer.

Step 2: Trace the characters to the paperboard.

I type up the characters I want to make on a MS Word document. If you don’t know Chinese, ask for a list of characters from your child’s teacher. The font that I prefer is ST Kaiti because it shows the way the strokes look when they are written with a brush and ink. I print them out with just the outline (to save on ink) in 200 point font. With the carbon paper, I then trace the characters to the paperboard with the graphite paper., leaving about an inch of space between each character. I also like to color in the characters with a gold Sharpie.

outline of character "zhong"
Printing out just the outlines of the characters saves on printer ink.

Step 3: Write in stroke order. 

This is the really time consuming part. Each character needs to be written in a certain stroke order. On the sandpaper characters, I write in arrows with numbers next to them to show the order. This is important to show the kids that they have to follow the stroke order. If you don’t know Chinese, you will need to look up the stroke orders for the different characters on a website like this one.

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This is the most time-consuming part of making sandpaper characters, writing in the stroke order.

Step 4: Cut up the characters.

At this point, I cut up the characters into individual cards.

Step 5: Glue and sand.

With a paintbrush if you need it, make sure that the characters have a thin coating of glue. I do about 5-6 at a time, any more than that and I find that the glue starts to dry before I get to the sand. I put the cards on a piece of tin foil so I can easily pour the excess sand back in the bag and reuse it.

photo of sandpaper character "我"
The finished product!

Step 6: Let dry and use!

Again, this process is incredibly time-consuming, but it is not exactly difficult. It can be done without any knowledge of Chinese, but writing in the stroke order will be extra tedious. Doing about 20 characters takes me several hours. On the bright side, they last a long time. So far, I have been using my first sandpaper characters for 2 years.

More on Chinese and Montessori tools.

Mandarin and Montessori (one of my most popular blog posts, ever).

*Most sources agree that there are about 20,000 characters in modern use, with about 2-3,000 needed to read a newspaper in China.

Chinese Summer Camp 2019

drawing of kids in canoe for summer camp
Join us for summer camp!

Chinese Immersion Summer Camp in San Antonio

Together with the International School of San Antonio, Lotus Chinese Learning is offering Mandarin Chinese immersion camps this year! These camps are a fun opportunity for new students to get started with Chinese classes or to keep up their language during the summer.  The camps are for students ages 3-10. Camp hours will be from 9-3:30, with aftercare available (dependent on sufficient registration). The camp will be conveniently located at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, near I-10 and 410.

Summer Camp Dates and Themes

June 17-21 (Afternoon ONLY): China STEM. Get immersed in Mandarin Chinese with China STEM! This class will introduce students to basic Mandarin through STEM-based activities. Students will learn colors, numbers, animals an shapes while learning about rockets, tangrams, ancient pottery and more. While learning a new language, students will also learn about Chinese culture, practice their math skills and participate in hands-on activities.

drawing of rocket
Did you know that rockets are a Chinese invention?

June 24-28: Dinosaur Adventure. Did you know that many of the world’s largest collections of dinosaur fossils are found in China? In dinosaur adventure, we will learn about dinosaurs, especially those found in China. We will make our own fossils, learn about how dinosaurs lived and have fun in the world of the dinosaurs!

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Learn more about dinosaurs and why so many of them are found in China this summer!

July 15-19: Around the World in Five Days. Students will travel all over the world, visiting one continent for each day of camp. They will learn about the people and environments all in Chinese! We will make different crafts, learn about animals from all over the world and play games from diverse cultures.

children around the world drawing
Learn about the world through Chinese immersion

July 22-26: Chinese Arts from Pottery to Pop. Get ready for a hands on exploration of Chinese arts and crafts! Students will make a variety of Chinese art crafts, from sancai porcelain to contemporary paintings. They will also learn about Chinese art from its ancient roots to present day.

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Camp tuition is $315 for full day and $185 for half day (snacks included)

Interested in learning more or signing up? email Mary@lotuschineselearning.com or use the contact page to get in touch!