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!

Mandarin Classes and Chinese New Year

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