Birthdays around the world

Celebrating birthdays in different languages

June is a special month for me because it’s both my birthday month, our wedding anniversary and it’s also the month I started Lingobox so birthdays and celebrations all round!

Birthday traditions offer a fantastic opportunity to celebrate our learners individually, embed languages and culture into learning, develop our language skills and share our cultures.  For language learning, it’s a great way to embed language into classroom practice by learning greetings and songs together.   For EAL learners and families, different cultures have different customs, traditions and songs around birthdays and so it’s worth considering this and finding out more about how different people do (or don’t!) celebrate.  I’ve noted some interesting examples of birthdays customs in different cultures which will hopefully give you some ideas and inspiration!

Birthday Greetings and Songs  

Singing or saying happy birthday in the language you are learning, or languages spoken by your learners is an easy and fun way to embed languages into your classroom practice.  Why not ask your learners to choose the language they’d like for their birthday and then try together with the whole class?  This provides a context for exploring links across languages, how we learn languages and learning multiple languages e.g. L3.   It could also make a good learner leader project, asking pupils to choose a culture and language, research the birthday traditions and then learn and present the birthday song from that country or culture.

The Happy Birthday song apparently has its origins in a classroom and was used by two American teachers in the United States as a Good Morning song.   It’s easy to assume that everyone sings a translation version of this well-known song (and many do!) however, a lot of countries and cultures have their own birthday songs which are distinctly different.  For example, the Polish birthday song is a song called Sto Lat which translates as 100 Years.  And in Ukraine, people sing a song called Mnohaya Lita which is used not just for birthdays but for celebrations generally.  And in Mexico there is not just one birthday song but over many songs and chants which people sing on birthdays!

We’ll have examples of these and more from around the world on our website when it goes live this summer!

Birthday Food

 Much like songs, it’s easy to assume that everyone follows our tradition of birthday cake however, again, there are different food traditions around the world.  In China for example, rather than a cake, people eat extra-long noodles called Chang Shou Mian.  These represent longevity and whoever’s birthday it is, is supposed to slurp them up as far as they can without biting into the noodle!

Different versions of birthday cake appear in most European cultures, and it is thought to have its origins in Ancient Greece where, people made a moon shaped cake as an offering to Artemis, the Goddess of Moon and Childbirth.  The candles were added so that the cake would shine like the moon. This evolved into a tradition in Germany in the Middle Ages called Kinderfest (Children’s Festival) where a cake was offered to a child on their birthday with the same number of candles as the age they were turning!    There are lots of different examples of birthday celebration cakes and food around the world, so again, this is something which could be interesting to explore with your learners.

Birthday customs and traditions

Like I mentioned earlier, not all cultures celebrate birthdays. This is worth considering as birthdays might be quite a strange concept to some learners.  In some cultures, such as Afghanistan, there are celebrations at life events such as a new baby or weddings but not for individual annual celebration of birthdays. Rather than birthdays, people would celebrate the new year and the 1st of the year is treated like everyone’s birthday.  This tends to be particularly the case in countries or cultures where the societal focus is more collective than individual. Other examples include countries like Vietnam and Bhutan.

Some countries have more than one special day for people every year and in many countries, people also celebrate name days. This is quite often a calendar with different names allocated to different days throughout the year.  So, for example, in France, la fête du prénom (first name festival) for my first name (Ann) is on the 26th July and in Sweden, it’s the 13th June.   You could always create your own “fête du prénom” calendar with your class!

How we measure age can also differ from country to country. Some Asian countries, such as China and Korea, follow a system known as the East Asia Age Reckoning whereby your age is counted as one year old from birth.  You also change age at the start of a new calendar year.   This means that if you are born on the last day of the old calendar year, you are immediately 2 years old the day after!  It is also perfectly normal for people to ask you your age in countries such as Korea and China.  In the west we would consider this to be rude, however, in many Asian countries, is a perfectly normal thing to ask when you first meet someone!

These are just a few examples of different birthday traditions and customs from around the world but I’m sure you and your learners could find out lots more.  This would make a great short topic: Birthdays around the world!  Please do share any examples of any other customs and traditions you know about.