Story Listening with Mid-Autumn Festival

What is Mid-Autumn Festival?

This year (2018), Mid-Autumn festival falls on September 24. For Mid-Autumn Festival, we gather with our families, looks at the moon, and eat mooncakes. Mooncakes are the fruitcakes of Chine: a holiday-oriented dessert that some people love and some people love to hate. In China, companies give boxes of mooncakes as gifts to their employees. Even when I was a student, one year the university gave all the foreign students boxes of mooncakes (probably because we paid so much more in tuition than our Chinese counterparts:)). Like many traditional festivals in China, Mid-Autumn Festival has an associated legend. The legend of Chang’e, like many other traditional stories, can be a good basis for story listening.

photo of mooncakes from Mid-Autumn Festival
Mooncakes! Pictured are the popular Guangdong-style mooncakes. There are many other varieties available in China.

What is story listening?

In story listening, a teacher tells the class a story (often a legend or folktale), using pictures, gestures, and sometimes translation to help the students understand the story. The goal is for the students to fully understand the story. It is not necessary for them to be able to retell it in the target language, although that may be part of some lesson plans. Critics of story listening say that it is too teacher-centered. While the teacher usually does stand at the front of class and talk to the students, everything she does is oriented to their level. It is actually completely student-oriented.

The Legend of Chang’e and Houyi

A teacher can modify the telling of the legend of Chang’e and Houyi for students of various levels. One challenge for story listening is helping students keep track of the characters. Chang’e and Houyi are the main characters of the legend of Mid-Autumn Festival. I pre-print out illustrations of them to help with the story telling. Houyi is supposed to be a man of exceptional strength, so a photo of a muscly guy helps get the point across. There are several other characters that may be included in the telling of the legend, but to keep things simple for beginner students, I leave them out. There is something remembering names in a second language that is difficult. Having the character illustrations with the name illustrations really helps students keep track of who is who.

photo of white board from story listening lesson on Mid-Autumn Festival
Pictures of the characters help students keep track of who is in the story

Formative Assessment with Story Listening

After I tell the story, I want to make sure that the students understand pretty much everything that I said. There is a very easy way to do this. I just ask the students to repeat the story back to me in English. Lots of people believe that in a good language classrooms, students should use English as little as possible. I believe that classroom time is precious and students should get as much input as possible. Efforts to completely stamp out the use of English are misguided, however. Simply put, it is easier to ban English (or any other L1) than it is to ensure quality teaching. Furthermore, the goal for beginners is not to have them speaking Mandarin Chinese all the time. They can’t do it anyway. Rather, the goal is for them to understand everything that they hear. An easy, fast, an straightforward way to check for this is to have them summarize the story in English. If there are mistakes in the summary, then I know that I have not told the story in the best way for their level.

Teaching Culture with Story Listening

Story listening is great for teaching language, but it is also great for teaching culture. Folktales are great source material for story listening. Chinese culture certainly has many to choose from. Sometimes when traditional holidays roll around, the students are just not ready (either in terms of their language ability or their maturity) to listen to a folktale in Chinese. This is especially true for younger students. If one of the goals of a program is teaching about culture, it can be perfectly time to take a break from the language component and just focus on the culture. There are many books available in English that teach students about Mid-Autumn Festival. Teachers can use them to do a quick segment in English on that aspect of the culture.

More on Story Listening

Making illustrations to go with stories

Story listening and culture

 

How Much Mandarin Do You Really Need to Travel in China?

photo of Jade Girl Peak at Wuyi Mountain (Wuyi Shan)
Go to China and see the Jade Girl Peak in person! (But learn some Mandarin first)

So you want to travel in China…

Many adult students seek out Mandarin Chinese classes in preparation for a trip to China. Lots of American tourists would take a trip to Mexico or France without brushing up on Spanish or French. Many travelers, whether they are going for business or pleasure, however, feel that it is necessary to learn some Mandarin for China. Despite the fact that many people in China spend years learning English, knowing Mandarin is very useful for travel in China.

Leaving Shanghai and Beijing

Outside of Beijing and Shanghai, travel in China can be very difficult. Sichuan Province recently made the list of Lonely Planet’s top destinations in Asia. The capital of Sichuan, Chengdu, is a fast-growing city, but it does not nearly have the infrastructure of Shanghai or Beijing. Knowing the language (at least a little) can make it so much easier to travel in places like Sichuan.

Ordering Food

A good reason to learn a few Chinese characters before traveling to China is ordering food. Big restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing have English menus and/or picture menus. If a traveler goes off the beaten path, Anthony Bourdain-style, knowing Chinese characters will help when looking at menus. Even knowing the characters for beef (牛肉) and pork (猪肉) is useful. Going to hole-in-wall restaurants is also easier on the budget.

photo of crab dumplings
Crab dumplings? It is easier to order these if you know some Mandarin

Get off the Beaten Path (there will still be loads of Chinese tourists)

One of the best things to do in China is to climb a scenic mountain, such as Yellow Mountain (Huang Shan) or Wuyi Mountain (Wuyi Shan). Places like these require some navigation and that is where knowing Mandarin comes in handy. With a beginner or intermediate level of Mandarin, a tourist will not have elaborate conversations in rural China. They will, however, be able to more easily give directions to taxi drivers, find out room rates and order food.

view at Yellow Mountain (Huangshan)
Getting to see this view is a lot is easier with some Mandarin knowledge

It is not impossible to travel all over China without knowing any Mandarin. It just makes life more difficult (and expensive). One of the joys that knowing the language opens up is getting to know people. An article in Bon Appetit suggests going to the same restaurant more than once while traveling, just to get to know some locals. They are onto something. Eventually all the food, mountain vistas and train rides blur together when traveling. But the people remain distinct if you get to know them.

 

Headed to China? Learn some Chinese before you go! Get in touch via the contact page. Skype classes available.

Why Should You (or Your Child) Study Mandarin Chinese?

Usually on the blog, I stay away from questions like this one. For students and parents reading the website, I assume that there is already an interest in learning Mandarin Chinese. I usually focus on the how of learning Mandarin Chinese here, not on the why. But something happened this week that demonstrated just how much Chinese society is changing every day.

Today (March 22, 2018) is the Big Give in San Antonio. As part of the Big Give, I am fundraising for a local non-profit, Restore Education. Almost on a whim, I posted my fundraising page to the social media platform WeChat. WeChat is by far the most popular and comprehensive social media platform in Mainland China and I use it to keep in touch with friends in China and all over the world. Within minutes, I got a message from my friend Daniel in China. Daniel is middle-aged, works for the local government and is looking forward to when his son gets married in the near future. We have known each other for over a decade. Daniel asked me a little bit about the non-profit, I told him that they improve educational outcomes for at-risk people. A few minutes after that, Daniel sent me a donation in WeChat (the ability to send money within the app is one of the many wonders of WeChat).

In America, charitable giving is a big part of our culture. The majority of financial support (72%) for American non-profits comes from individuals. About 2% of our GDP goes to charity, in China, however, that number is .1%. When I was living in China, and fundraising for non-profits there, many of my Chinese friends and colleagues were skeptical about charitable giving. They usually expected the government to take care of social problems. It was surprising to me, since I have been living in the US for several years now, to get a donation so quickly. The number of donations from top philanthropists in China tripled from 2010-2016 and I think that that trend is reaching Chinese people who are not billionaires.

Twenty or thirty years ago, China was just the country that manufactured lots of stuff to most Americans. Now China is on the cover of the Economist almost every week. Its citizens are even sending donations to American charities! As the society changes, I believe that it is worth it to get to know the people more. Learning the language is an important step in that direction, so learn Mandarin Chinese!

In case you’re interested, my fundraising page for Restore Education is here. 谢谢!

IMG_0111
A donation all the way from China for the Big Give San Antonio