Chinese Currency: A Lesson

Why Chinese Currency?

Chinese currency is an easy way to talk about not only money and numbers but also to look at the geography and history of China. For a class with adults, I look at the backs of the Chinese RMB 1, RMB5, RMB 10, RMB 20, RMB 50 and RMB 100 notes. As anyone who has been to China knows, the front of most Chinese paper currency all feature the same guy, Mao Zedong. The backs, however, are all different.

How it Works

My class based on Chinese currency is geared for beginner adult students, but could be modified for different groups. At the end of the day it is a content class about different places in China, so it could be fine for a group with different ability levels. I start by showing the class a photo of the 1 RMB note and then ask, “what is it in Chinese.” It is very simple language for the students to follow.

back of the 1 RMB note (Chinese currency) with a photo of the West Lake scene it is based on
back of the 1RMB notes

Then I show the back of the bill. I ask the students, “what is this?” or “what place is this?” The students can respond in English. Responding to the question in English shows that they at least understand the question. For a typical class, it is not likely that they know exactly the place in China that is pictured on the bill. But they might have a few good guesses. All of the scenes are of very famous places in China.

To go through the RMB 1-100 notes and show the students on the map of China where all the locations are, takes about 30-40 minutes. The class may take longer, depending on whether we have a big group or not. In case you are wondering, the places pictured on the backs of the Chinese bills from 1-100 are West Lake, Mount Tai, the Three Gorges, Guilin scenery, Potala Palace and the Great Hall of the People.

Back of 5 RMB note (Chinese currency)
View of Mount Tai
Back of 10 RMB note (Chinese currency)
View of the Three Gorges

Relating the Money to Something Bigger

These are famous places from all over China. West Lake and Mount Tai are both near the eastern coast. The Three Gorges are in the heart of China. Guilin is in the south. Potala is in Tibet. The Great Hall of the People is in the north, in Beijing. They represent the history, geography and the political ambitions of China. One of the great projects of the Chinese civilization is to stitch together a nation from peoples spread over a large area. The currency in a person’s pocket seem mundane, but it hints at the larger project of Chinese civilization.

back of 20 RMB (Chinese currency)
View of Guilin Scenery
back of 50 RMB notes (Chinese currency)
View of Potala Palace
Back of 100 RMB note (Chinese currency)
The Great Hall of the People

 

More on learning about Chinese culture through language classes:

Is it Chinese Food?

MovieTalk: Bao

 

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.”

corn-3566829_640
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.

chicken-319233_640
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?

naang
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.

Chinese New Year 2019

Happy Chinese New Year!

The year of the pig is right around the corner! Every since I have been back in the US I have been surprised at how many references to Chinese New Year (CNY) I see here. This year, I saw a mailer from Office Depot, special CNY mums at Trader Joe’s (?) and an ad from Kate Spade. The lunar new year is probably one of the most widely celebrated holiday in the world, so it shouldn’t be surprising to see references to it everywhere. Yet, it still is part of our job as Chinese language educators to teach our students and communities about the holiday.

photo of red lanterns
It’s Chinese New Year Y’all

Chinese New Year Or….

Chinese New Year is more commonly known as Spring Festival in China. That is direct translation of the most common Chinese name for it: 春节. People also often refer to the holiday as the lunar new year. This is also an umbrella term that includes the holiday as it is celebrated in other countries. These include Korean New Year or Tet in Vietnam. Here is San Antonio we have the annual Asian Festival at the Institute of Texan Cultures which coincides with the lunar new year and it includes a variety of different cultures.

Students should at the very least know that Spring Festival is another word for Chinese New Year. They should also know that it is the first day of spring in the traditional Chinese calendar. There is of course so much more to learn.  It really depends on time and other factors how much we explore this holiday. I write more here about why it is okay to use English when learning about culture in class sometimes. Just knowing the basic facts about this holiday is the absolute minimum, and where we go from there depends on how much class time we have, student interest, and what their prior knowledge is.

More than Just Lip-service

It used to be that even including something about Spring Festival in k-12 was a check box on a list for including diversity. Now, educators, students and parents are a lot want more than just lip-service towards diversity. We are not just ticking boxes anymore. In recent years there has been a push to do more than just talk about “food and flags.” That is a great goal and good lessons about culture will always do more than just ask students to identify what foods we eat at Chinese New Year.

photo of person making dumplings
Making Dumplings for Chinese New Year

Including Chinese New Year in a Meaningful Way

We know that a good use of class time is to give students comprehensible input in the target language. That means that playing board games with Chinese characters on the spaces or coloring pictures of dragons is not really a good use of time. The students are not hearing or reading anything in Chinese that they can understand.  One idea for a class that is looking to do something meaningful for Spring Festival is to have the students first learn about the holiday through videos/slide shows/pictures/etc and then plan a party. They will get the input they need through the introduction of the holiday in Chinese. Then they actually get to make something (a party) that is meaningful to them.

photo of me with red envelopes for Chinese New Year
Getting the red envelopes ready for the kids!

Have a suggestion for how to include Chinese New Year in a language class? Leave it in the comments!

Learning Large Numbers in Chinese with Real Estate Ads

How are Large Numbers in Chinese Different?

Chinese numbers can be annoying for language students. The numbers for 1-100 seem easy enough. Twenty (二十) is literally “two ten” and thirty (三十) is literally “three ten” and so on. It is the large numbers that give students trouble. In English, one million is 1,000,000 but in Chinese we write it as 100万, which is more like “one hundred ten thousand.”

For students, thinking one million as “one hundred times ten thousand” can seem like… a lot of math. This can be especially distressing for students who chose to study Mandarin Chinese because they want a challenge that is not a STEM class. So do students have to do multiplication problems with large numbers just to use numbers in Chinese? No they don’t. Just like any other aspect of language, students will be able to use the correct words as long as they have heard and read enough input that includes those numbers. Students can learn anything with enough repetition.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Even though students can learn anything (when it comes to language) with enough repetition, we still have what Stephen Krashen calls the affective filter. As mentioned in an earlier post, high levels of anxiety, embarrassment, etc. can raise students affective filters and make it more difficult for students to learn. When students first encounter large numbers the Chinese way, they often resist because they are different to how we write large numbers in English. Giving students lots of input that included large numbers in context is one way to lessen the natural feelings of anxiety about Chinese numbers.

Getting Input with Real Estate Advertisements from Chinese Cities

The key to language acquisition is comprehensible input. Comprehensible input is language that students hear/read and (crucially) understand. For adult students, one way to give students a lot of input that includes large numbers is through…. real estate advertisements! Looking at real estate ads, we see the “easy” numbers. For example, the apartment is on the 16th floor, and it is 80 square meters. Ads also have large numbers for the prices. If you look at real estate ads for Shanghai or Beijing you are guaranteed to see prices that are in the millions and tens of millions (RMB).

Real estate ads are also a way to use authentic resources (authres) in the classroom. They are short so the students do not get overwhelmed. They are also a good spring board for further cultural discussions. Buying a home is very important in both American and Chinese cultures. But there are differences in the age of first time home buyers, living arrangements and what people value in a home.

photo of Chinese real estate ads
This could be a basis of a discussion on buying a home in China vs the US

Conclusion

As with everything else in language learning, students learn through getting input in a meaningful context. When we focus on creating meaning and using repetition, students can acquire anything. Even something as annoying as large numbers in Chinese!

 

Interested in learning more about Mandarin Chinese classes at Lotus Chinese Learning? Please get in touch!

Chinese paper cutting, or how to incorporate culture into language classes

Making Culture Level and Age Appropriate

Most language educators agree that it is important to include at least some component of culture in a language class. Chinese culture is of course, very rich. Chinese civilization has a long history from which to draw. It is also true however, that we have to do what works with our students. Adult students can sit through (and enjoy!) a 45-minute presentation on gift-giving in China, but that would be a disaster for lower elementary students. Culture lessons need to be appropriate for their audience.

Chinese Paper Cutting with a Halloween Theme

When holidays come around, it can be a nice time to work in more culture to the material. However, the calendar does not always cooperate. Chinese Valentine’s Day (七夕) can be a good story for kids, but it occurs in summer when we are out of class. Likewise, there is a big yawning gap for major Chinese holidays between Mid-Autumn Festival (typically in September) and Chinese New Year (late January-February). To channel the holiday enthusiasm and include more Chinese culture in the curriculum, this year I combined Halloween with Chinese paper cutting.

photo of CHinese paper cutting activity
Example of Pumpkin Chinese Paper Cutting

Chinese paper cutting is a traditional handicraft. Generally, paper cuttings are just used for decoration in China. Halloween is not “a thing” in China really, but I do have a book of paper cutting designs that are meant for kids. In it are plenty of paper cuttings that fit a Halloween theme.

As long as the kids understand that Halloween is not really a Chinese holiday, then I think that doing Chinese paper cutting for a special class on or near Halloween works. We can cover at least one aspect of culture (a traditional handicraft) while also recognizing that kids are usually bouncing off the walls around Halloween. We probably won’t be able to cover as much material as we do normally, so it is good to channel that energy to something else.

photo of Chinese paper cut bat
It’s a bat!

Chinese Paper Cutting with Other Holidays and Festivals

This year, with some of my kiddos, we made Chinese paper cuttings of bats, pumpkins and spiders. This same idea, of combining Chinese paper cutting with the non-Chinese holiday of Halloween could work with other holidays. My book of paper cutting ideas for kids has Christmas trees and presents designs (if your school observes Christmas). It also has ears of corn, pumpkins and apples that could tie into Thanksgiving… and many more possibilities.

It is a challenge to incorporate culture into a language class in a way that is age and language level appropriate. Do you have any additional ideas for how to do it? Share in the comments!

photo of Chinese paper cutting book
Paper Cutting Book for Kids

 

Interested in learning more about Mandarin Chinese classes at Lotus Chinese Learning? Get in touch via the contact page!