Chinese Language Day is celebrated and recognized by the United Nations (UN) each year on April 20 to promote multilingualism and cultural diversity. Modern Standard Chinese is one of the six official languages of the UN. It was established as a working language by the UN General Assembly in 1973.
Why is Chinese Language Day celebrated on April 20?
April 20 was chosen by the UN because of its significance in Chinese culture. Guyu, or “grain rain,” is the sixth of 24 Chinese solar terms, and it falls around April 20 each year on the Gregorian calendar. This season marks a period of important rainfall for crops, and the end of spring. In southern China, tea leaves are often harvested during the period of Guyu.
How Chinese is spoken
There are more native speakers of Chinese than any other language, with 1.2 billion speakers worldwide. Spoken varieties of Chinese, called dialects, are often mutually unintelligible to one another. Linguists usually classify these dialects as separate languages. Within dialects there are also regional accents and pronunciations.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, China tried to establish a standardized form of writing and speaking recognized by all people. Modern Standard Chinese, based on Mandarin, was adopted in the 1950s. Pinyin, based on the Beijing dialect, was created to help teach pronunciation, especially to non-native speakers and those unfamiliar with this dialect. In 1979, Pinyin was adopted for use in all diplomatic communications in English-speaking countries.
How Chinese is written
Written Chinese is based on characters, in contrast to the Roman alphabet, which consists of letters. Each character represents one syllable. Most words in modern Chinese are compound words, represented by two or more characters put together. Chinese characters are one of the oldest forms of writing still in use today.
Calligraphy, or the writing of characters, has been an important artform in China for centuries. There are six main styles of calligraphy, with two “modern” styles still in use today. The other four are considered “archaic” and are used for artistic purposes.
Celebrate the vast and rich history of Chinese culture and language with your students through these ideas.
Classroom activities for Chinese Language Day
Honoring Chinese Language Day in your classroom can be as simple or in-depth as you’d like! To start, help students get a sense of China’s geography, location, and its relative size. These maps for educators can give your students important context.
This video describes the Chinese solar calendar, and specifically the season of Guyu. Students can see how Guyu tea is harvested and produced in the Anhua region. Here are some ideas for activities to do after you watch all or parts of the video:
● Talk about the historical and cultural significance of harvesting tea in Anhua
● Compare and contrast the Chinese solar calendar with the Gregorian calendar
● Brew tea with your students for a tactile learning experience
● Learn more about the legend of Cangjie mentioned toward the end of the video
You can also give students a brief overview of Chinese dialects and characters. Practice speaking basic phrases together. This can help students understand how tones indicate differences in the meaning of words that otherwise sound identical.
Another simple activity for younger students is to read books, folktales, and stories celebrating Chinese culture. You can use them as a jumping-off point to talk to students about traditions, words, and objects that might be new to them.
Since calligraphy is such an important form of art in Chinese culture, you can have students practice writing characters while also learning its history. Have students go more in-depth by learning the eight different strokes that make up Chinese characters in this lesson plan.