Chinese Culture Teaching in Chinese Language Classes. Problems and Challenges of Teaching Culture Through Language

Teaching Chinese in Serbia

Master's Thesis, 2018
80 Pages, Grade: 9



Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: Literature review
2.1 What is culture?
2.2 What is Language?
2.3 Relations between Language and Culture
2.4 Integrating Culture into Language Teaching
2.5 Differences between Chinese culture and western culture
2.5.1 Chinese culture and Serbian culture
2.6 Chinese Language and Culture
2.6.1 Chinese Characters
2.6.2 Calligraphy
2.6.3 Relation between Chinese language and culture

Chapter 3:Methodology
3.1 Research questions
3.1.1 How will Chinese culture influence students in Chinese language education?
3.1.2 How should Chinese culture be taught in Chinese language education?
3.1.3 What aspects of Chinese culture should be taught in Chinese language education?
3.1.4 What are the problems in teaching Chinese culture? How can we solve them?
3.2 Sample
3.2.1 Students sample
3.2.2 Teachers sample
3.3 Data collection methods
3.3.1 Documentation review
3.3.2 Questionnaire
3.3.3 Interview
3.4 Data analysis methods
3.4.1 Content analysis of textbook
3.4.2 SPSS analysis for questionnaire
3.4.3 Qualitative analysis


Chapter 4: Textbook analysis

Chapter 5: Questionnaire Analysis
5.1 Students’ motivation to learn Chinese language
5.2 Teaching form
5.3 Culture aspects
5.4 Open-ended questions
5.4.1 What is your suggestion about cultural knowledge in Chinese textbook?
5.4.2 What is your suggestion about cultural knowledge teaching in Chinese class?
5.4.3 What is your suggestion about teachers?

Chapter 6: Interview
6.1 Culture teaching content
6.2 Culture teaching method
6.3 Culture teaching materials
6.4 Culture teaching time
6.5 Culture teaching activities
6.6 Culture teaching barriers
6.7 Culture teaching effect

Chapter 7: Students and teachers’ option about learning and teaching Chinese culture
7.1 Culture teaching content
7.2 Culture teaching method
7.3 Culture teaching materials
7.4 Culture teaching activities


List of Figures




As the relationship between China an Serbia becomes closer, more and more students in Serbia begin to learn Chinese language, but different cultural context is a huge obstacle for both students and teachers. Although we have realized the important role of culture in language education, effective teaching method and suitable teaching content are still confusing research questions. Through this research, I am going to get know about the situation of Chinese culture teaching in Serbia, explore ways for Chinese culture teaching in Chinese classes and solutions for culture teaching problems by getting contact with Chinese language students and teachers.

Key words: Chinese culture, Chinese language, culture teaching

Chapter 1: Introduction

In Peck’s (1998, p.1) words, “Without the study of culture, foreign language instruction is inaccurate and incomplete”, or it is what Sellami (2000, p.4) refers to as “a lifeless endeavor”. According to Lessard-Clouston (1997) language teaching is culture teaching. Hendon’s (1980) belief is that unless culture is a central focus in language teaching, students will not communicate to “the fullest extent”.

Even though culture has been emphasized these days, there are still a lot of research questions. Despite multiple attempts and continuous efforts to define the term “culture,” researchers have not yet come up with a single agreed-upon definition (Tang, 2006). The lack of an overarching definition presents foreign language teachers with the challenge of determining which components or segments of the target culture should be taught. Traditional thoughts of foreign culture teaching tend to limit on transmission of foreign cultural information or teaching foreign literature in the classroom. Teaching cultural facts or information has not enabled learners to understand foreign attitudes, values, and mindsets (Kramsch, 1993). Not only what should we teach, but also when should we teach, how should we teach. Cultural teaching needs to focus on “exploration and description” which is different from teaching grammar because the rules of creating meanings are dynamic (Kramsch, 2003).

Wolfson (1983, p.62) points out, “In interacting with foreigners, native speakers tend to be rather tolerant of errors in pronunciation or syntax. In contrast, violations of rules of speaking are often interpreted as bad manners since the native speaker is unlikely to be aware of sociolinguistic relativity”. Which means culture plays an important role in teaching and learning a language. Serbian students living in western culture context, which has lots of differences from Chinese culture, should get enough knowledge about Chinese culture in order to communicate accurately in Chinese language. For example, westerners often use the thanks and apologies routines. While in China, among intimate friends, “thank you” is sparingly used; in the family it is still rarer (Cheng, 2004). It is easy for students to learn “thank you” in Chinese, but it requires them to get familiar about Chinese culture to know when to use it.

This research was conducted in Belgrade. Secondary schools in Belgrade began to hold Chinese optional class from 2011. Chinese compulsory class is held only in filoloska gimnazija in Belgrade. Students and teachers in the Chinese optional and compulsory classes were the subjects in the research. Through questionnaire with students and interviews with teachers, this research was able to collect enough information about the situation of Chinese culture teaching in Chinese language classes. The project was designed to solve four research questions: 1) contribution of learning about Chinese culture for Chinese language acquisition; 2) ways of Chinese culture teaching; 3) contents of Chinese culture teaching; 4) problems of Chinese culture teaching.

Chapter 2: Literature review

2.1 What is culture?

Culture is an enigma. It contains both concrete and abstract components (see Figure 1). There are some visible parts: art, music, language, just to name a few. But the powerful foundations of culture are more difficult to spot: the history of the group of people that hold the culture, their norms, values, etc (Silvio, 2000). Culture is also a multifaceted phenomenon. What is culture? This question has fascinated scholars in various academic disciplines for many decades (Ting-Toomey, 1999). The word “culture” is closely related to “cultivate”, derived from the Latin culivus, meaning ‘tilled soil’ (James, 2017). D’Andrade (1984, p.116) conceptualizes “culture” as “Learned systems of meaning, communicated by means of natural language and other symbol systems … and capable of creating cultural entities and particular senses of reality. Through these systems of meaning, groups of people adapt to their environment and structure interpersonal activities.” Recent descriptions of culture echo by Wallace and Grument (2004) , stressing that culture is a word of practices and ideologies that are to some extent fought over. Byram’s (2008, p.60) version for culture defined as “shared beliefs, values and behaviors of a social group”. While James’s (2017, p.4) definition is that culture denotes the set of principle guiding human thought and action together with the products of thought and action in a society and in the now-continuous intersocietal encounters.

Directly or indirectly, the following perspectives on culture reflect these underlying features – namely, culture as:

- a “glue” that holds a particular society together;
- a circulatory phenomenon (something that circulates across time and space);
- a process or, more accurately, a complex nexus of processes;
- sets of rules that operate in various activities form;
- a set of practices, signs, values, and ideologies. (James, 2017)

Figure 1 Some indicators of culture are visible,and some are under the surface1

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2.2 What is Language?

Language, a major component of culture, both conveys and constructs a worldview, as well as formulating ideologies and belief systems for the people of any given culture (Lu, 2004). It is used to construct social and ideological reality, and certain ideological orientations affect the thought and culture of a particular group or nation. Hoijer (1974, p.122), “Language plays a large and significant role in the totality of culture. Far from being simply a technique of communication, it is a way of directing the perceptions of its speakers and it provides for them habitual modes of analyzing experience in significant categories”.

According to Harry Hoijer (1965, p.266), “language as a guide to social reality” was first postulated by American anthropologist Franz Boas. More important, Boas (1942, according Hoijer, 1965) posits that language classifies experience and that different languages classify experience differently. Accordingly, by studying the language of a culture different from one’s own, one can gain insights into the people and culture in question (Lu, 2004). In Boas’s view (1974, p.28), “Language seems to be one of the fundamental ethnic ideas”. Further, Language guides and controls human action in an unconscious and intuitive way. Edward Sapir (1974, according to Lu 2004) notes that language has a socialization function capable of unifying members of the same group and altering the individual’s views to conform to those of the group.

2.3 Relations between Language and Culture

The relationship between language and culture, whether in general or in a particular case, is of course an extremely complex problem which has psychological, sociological and political dimensions (Byram, 1989). Risager (2006) explores the link between language and culture when a communicative event takes place; by communicative event she means any social event, which also refers to a cultural event, so the best term is socio-cultural event in which languaculture (Agar, 1994) is used in a local integration with discursive and other cultural flows. She analyses the relationship between language and culture from three different perspectives: sociological, psychological and linguistic. In the first perspective, language and culture can be separable, since it is possible for a language to express or create, as Kramsch (2009) would say, different realities or cultures. In the psychological perspective these two are inseparable, since an individual carries all the linguistic and cultural experience within oneself. The third perspective is valid only in the practice of linguistics where language is analyzed outside of its cultural context.The relation of culture and language is the way they share human values, realities and behaviors of a social group. As a conclusion, according to Kramsch, language expresses, embodies and symbolizes cultural reality.

Vygotsky, a famous psychologist, was concerned with the role of psychological, or cultural, tools as mediational means and the cultural tool that was of primary concern was language (Culligan, 2013). Based on Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, Wertsch (1985) states that if language also plays a key role in the development of individuals’ mental functions, then such functions will also be indirectly shaped by what happens during communication and in the culture. According to Wei (2005), language has a dual character: both as a means of communication and a carrier of culture. Language without culture is unthinkable, so is human culture without language. A particular language is a mirror of a particular culture. Brown (1994) describes the relation between language and culture as follows: 'A language is a part of a culture and a culture is a part of a language; the two are intricately interwoven so that one cannot separate the two without losing the significance of either language or culture'. In a word, culture and language are inseparable (Jiang, 2000 according Choudhury, 2014).

2.4 Integrating Culture into Language Teaching

Mastering in a language requires learners' mastery of the cultural contexts in which important social acts occur because it conveys warm feelings and solidarity among interlocutors (Cohen, 1996, according to Crozet & Liddicoat, 2000). Culture needs to be integrated into the teaching of all language skills so that learners can learn to speak but also write in culturally appropriate way for a myriad of a specific purpose (Crozet & Liddicoat, 2000).

When a language is taught for its educational values, understanding the cultural contents associated with the language is significant (Lado, 1964). Language competence and culture are intimately and dynamically connected (Rodriques, 2000), as the ability to communicate in a language requires knowledge of seeing, explaining and acting properly in accordance with the culture associated with the language (Omaggio & Hadley, 1986). Culture hence needs to be a central focus in language teaching, so that students will be able to communicate to the fullest extent (Hendon, 1980). According to Stainer (1971), studying culture renders the study of the second language meaningful. Moreover, learners who gain certain cultural knowledge can develop more positive attitudes towards and come to be more tolerant with other cultures. They not only acquire the knowledge of other cultures, but also increase their understanding of their own culture (Lado, 1964). Cortazzi and Jin (1999) categorize three types of cultural information that can be represented in language lessons: the target culture, the source culture and the international culture. Fenner’s (2000, according Nguyen, 2017) idea is that language education should be to give learners opportunities to develop cultural knowledge, competence and awareness of both the target culture and their own culture.

Andersen & Risager (1979, p. 23, according to Byram, 1989) see foreign language teaching as ‘a factor in the socialisation of the learner’ and therefore require that textbooks give a true experience of the society they claim to represent. They suggest that textbooks often give the impression of ideological neutrality in both cultural and linguistic terms but in fact any selection of content or language variety carries ideological overtones. The social content has to be representative in such a way that it can be regarded as a sort of summary of that society. Keller (1983, according to Byram, 1989) also stresses the importance of avoiding unconnected items of information and giving instead insights into the social norms and conflicts and the underlying structures of a foreign culture. Poirier and Rosselin (1982, according Crozet & Liddicoat, 2000) are particularly concerned that material should be seen in context, both contemporary and historical, and present two models of culture which would help to situate any one phenomenon.

2.5 Differences between Chinese culture and western culture

Chinese culture is considered high context while most Western cultures are ranked as low context (Hall, 1976). Chinese culture has been characterized as collectivistic, while most Western cultures are believed to be individualistic (Gudykunst & amp Kim, 1984; Hofstede, 1980). Chinese rhetoric is characterized by its lack of logic, deprecation of speech, and its audience centered approach (Becker, 1986; Jensen, 1987; Oliver, 1971, according to Lu, 2002). By contrast, Western rhetoric features the speaker, has a well-developed logical system. And is interested in dynamic mode of delivery (Oliver, 1971, according to Lu, 2002). Western societies tend to be multicultural. China, on the other hand, is for the most part a homogeneous society. Furthermore, Chinese domestic policies toward minorities are more assimilative than integrative. Another factor separating China from West is the difference in languages. Western languages are phonetic. Chinese, however, is a pictographic language. Finally, one of the biggest contributors to cultural variations is related to historical differences. It is crucial to be aware of the almost total lack of shared history. This lack is a major source of differences in Chinese and Western thinking (Ostrowski & Penner, 2009).

2.5.1 Chinese culture and Serbian culture

Geert Hofstede conducted one of the most comprehensive studies of how values in the workplace are influenced by culture. Between 1967 and 1973 the survey was conducted in two rounds and was completed by 160,000 employees from 70 countries in 20 languages (Hofstede 2009). As for now, six dimensions of culture are proposed - Power Distance, Individualism versus Collectivism, Masculinity versus Femininity, Uncertainty Avoidance, Long Term versus Short Term Orientation and Indulgence versus Restraint (Meda & Daiva 2017).

Based on Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, we can see compare Serbia with China (Figure 2).

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Figure 2 6-D model of China and Serbia2

Both China and Serbia score high on Power Distance dimension, low on on Indulgence dimension, which indicates that inequalities amongst people are acceptable and there is a tendency to cynicism and pessimism in these two societies.At scores of under 30, China and Serbia are highly collectivist culture where people act in the interests of the group and not necessarily of themselves.

In Masculinity dimension Serbia is considered a relatively feminine society, where quality of life is the sign of success and standing out from the crowd is not admirable. On the opposite, Chinese in masculine society will sacrifice family and leisure priorities to work and Chinese students care very much about their exam scores and ranking as this is the main criteria to achieve success or not.

Strong uncertainty avoidance exists in Serbia, while weak uncertainty avoidance is attributing China. The Chinese are comfortable with ambiguity; the Chinese language is full of ambiguous meanings that can be difficult for Western people to follow. The Serbian feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations.

China scores 87 in Long-term orientation dimension, which means that it is a very pragmatic culture, Chinese encourage thrift and efforts in modern education as a way to prepare for the future. With an intermediate score of 52, there is no clear preference for Serbia on this dimension.

2.6 Chinese Language and Culture

China has 56 ethnic minority groups, of which numerically, the largest is often called the “Han people.” The language of the Han group is what we commonly call “the Chinese language”. People in China also call this language the “Han language” (Lee, 2008). There are seven major groups of dialects of the Chinese language, which each have their own variations. “Chinese is rather more like a language family than a single language made up of a number of regional forms,” Jerry Norman (1988, p.187) wrote, “The Chinese dialectal complex is in many ways analogous to the Romance language family in Europe. To take an extreme example, there is probably as much difference between the dialects of Peking and Chaozhou as there is between Italian and French.” The official national language of China is a type of Mandarin spoken in the capital Beijing. One leading Western scholar talks about Chinese language as “The Ideographic Myth” (Lee, 2008). The Chinese language is unique as a living language, especially in its written form, as it is non-alphabetic.

2.6.1 Chinese Characters

Chinese words, called characters, are essentially pictures. Each character represents a word that can be used in combination with one or more other characters to form compound words (Ostrowski & Penner, 2009). There are approximately 60,000 Chinese characters in all but only about 3,000 are commonly used. Chinese writing would not only be the oldest in continuous use but also the oldest in the history of civilizations, roughly eight thousand years old. In Chinese characters’ various historical forms, taking them apart to reveal the different components out of which they could be constructed. One of these components could tell us how the character (roughly) sounds, others what they could mean, which might even be able to throw light on the context in which the character/word was embedded. Yet others might tell us what the objects they refer to actually look like in ancient times (Lee, 2008). Chinese characters originated from drawings. That is why painting and writing are interrelated in Chinese culture. The word for ‘write’ 写(xie), for instance, can also mean ‘to paint’; ‘painting from life’ is xiesheng写生 and ‘freehand brushwork in painting’ is xieyi写意 (Hodge & Louie,1998).

Chinese characters are identified as elements of Chinese culture while Latin alphabets are identified as elements of Western culture. They are among the most ancient scripts that are still in existence and being used. During the past several thousand years, Chinese characters have been inherited and, at the same time, been the subject of innovation (Pan, 2012). Viewed from the perspective of cultural design, the development of Chinese characters is marked by the following three stages:

The primitive stage: In this stage, Chinese characters developed from hieroglyphics into a system of written words. Images and figures are the origins of Chinese characters. Many carved marks are found on the ancient earthenware used by ancient people to express meanings.

The second stage: It marked the unification of Chinese characters. In the 3rd century BC when the state of Qin defeated the other 6 nations and unified Chinese characters and when Li Si initiated the handwriting of a small seal script that a uniform writing system of Chinese characters was set up in China.

The third stage: Gradually, handwriting forms became more and more matched to the use of writing tools, such as paper, writing brush and ink. The Chinese character system was well developed in the Jin Dynasty (Pan, 2012).

2.6.2 Calligraphy

The development of Chinese characters has experienced six different phases, with a distinct style of calligraphy marking each phase: large seal script (Figure 3), small seal script, clerical script (Figure 4), early cursive script , regular script (Figure 5) and cursive script (Figure 6). Calligraphy does not change the meaning of characters, but it enriches the forms of characters. It is an art in which brush pen and ink dance on paper (Pan, 2012).

Figure 3 Seal Script1

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Figure 4 Clerical Script2

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Figure 5 Regular Script3

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Figure 6 Cursive Script1

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2.6.3 Relation between Chinese language and culture

There are over 1 billion people living in China: that is one-sixth of the world’s total population. ‘China’ is eagerly leaping into this global world of postmodern culture, while still negotiating the claims of traditional Chinese values and a state socialist system (Hodge & Louie, 1998). The traditional Chinese values are harmony and stability while a new Chinese culture is characterized by conflict and instability. And the Chinese language has a complex relationship to notion of ‘China’.

Language is the carrier of culture and vocabulary is the basic ingredient of language. The cultural difference will inevitably exhibit on the vocabulary, and the explanation of vocabulary will also reflect the national or cultural difference (Choudhury, 2014). Take color as an example. In English, white, denoting a color, often associates with “pure, noble and moral goodness”, and the bride is dressed in white during the wedding in most western countries. In China the bride must wear red in the traditional wedding, definitely not white. Because Red means “happiness, good luck, flourishing and prosperous” in the future and people only wear white in funerals when one’s family member or relative is dead. White in China, is associated with “pale, weak and without vitality”. Also, the number four (sì) sounds like the character for death (sǐ). That is why the number four is avoided particularly on phone numbers, license plates, and addresses. For addresses that do contain fours, the rent is usually less (Choudhury, 2014).

Like other aspects of Chinese life, cuisine is heavily influenced by geography and ethnic diversity. Rice is not only a major food source in China; it is also a major element that helped grow the society (Fuller, 2011). The Chinese word for rice is fan, which also means "meal," and it is a staple of their diet. Eating fish during Chinese New Year (鱼, yú) is a must, though diners have to make sure they do not eat all the fish. Having leftovers can ensure there is a surplus (余, yú) every year (Kim, 2015).

As modesty and humility are also prized traits in Chinese culture, bragging or otherwise loudly touting one’s own achievements is generally looked down upon. In fact, even when others give someone a compliment, a common response is “Nali, nali” — Where? Where? (i.e. there are no grounds for praise). On the other hand, if a Chinese person makes a deprecating remark about something, say their English skills, you should immediately jump in and reassure them that their English is wonderful. This ties into the concept of “face” (mianzi) that in Chinese culture is a complex one. It can perhaps be most closely defined as “dignity” or “prestige”, but no translation can aptly cover all its fine nuances. It’s easy for a foreigner to unwittingly cause an embarrassing situation. One of the worst things that can happen to someone in Chinese culture is to “lose” face. A Chinese idiom goes, “Men can’t live without face, trees can’t live without bark”. Accordingly, after having lived in China for a while, you will start to notice the ways that Chinese people go out of their way to save face for each other (Shannon, 2017).

Thus, learning a language implies not only the knowledge of its grammar rules and the denotative meanings of words, but it involves much more, such as the culture phenomena (Choudhury, 2014).

Chapter 3: Methodology

3.1 Research questions

3.1.1 How will Chinese culture influence students in Chinese language education?

I assume that Chinese culture can motivate students in learning language, which need to be verified by collecting students’ and teachers’ opinions. Will Chinese culture actually influence students? How will culture motivate students?

3.1.2 How should Chinese culture be taught in Chinese language education?

What will be the best materials, methods and activities for students to get knowledge about Chinese culture? Through this research, I will try to get the answers from teachers’ experience and students’ feedback.

3.1.3 What aspects of Chinese culture should be taught in Chinese language education?

As students have different cultural background, which part of Chinese culture content are students most interested in? Are contents, mentioned in the textbook and taught by teachers, suitable for students?

3.1.4 What are the problems in teaching Chinese culture? How can we solve them?

Are there any problems when teachers are trying to teach Chinese culture? Do students feel comfortable about teachers’ teaching way? Can teachers solve problems they meet? If not, how could we find a better solution?

3.2 Sample

3.2.1 Students sample

This analysis is based on 81 responses of first, second, third and fourth year in secondary school; 36 were from philological secondary school (Table 3.1), in which Chinese class is held as compulsory class and students have Chinese classes with Serbian teacher every day, with Chinese teacher once a week. 45 were from five other different secondary school, in which Chinese class is optional class (Table 3.2), among them 25 were students from 13 secondary school of Belgrade who have Chinese classes with Serbian teacher once a week and with Chinese once a week, the others of 45 have classes with Chinese teachers twice a week. The first problem is showing on, why the number of students taught by teachers from China has decreased so much? As a Chinese teacher, I think cultural differences play an important ‘role’ in the situation, but there are also many other reasons which will be mentioned in the next sections.

Overall more female students completed the questionnaire (68 responses, 84%) in comparison to men (16%) (Table 3.3). The average age of students was 16 years (Table 3.4). A similar percentage of students responded from the different grades (Table 3.5), and the percentage of responses,who have learned Chinese for less than 3 months, from 3 months to 1.5 years, more than 1.5 years, were all about 30% (Table 3.6).

Table 3.1 School’s name

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Table 3.2 Class type

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Table 3.3 Gender

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Table 3.4 Age

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Table 3.5 Grade

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Table 3.6 How long have you learned Chinese?

3.2.2 Teachers sample

Serbian 2 is 48 years old, Serbian, finished Bachelor of Chinese language and education in Serbian, studying Master of Chinese in University of Belgrade, teaching Chinese in Belgrade for 18 years.

Serbian 1 is 29 years old, Serbian, finished Master of Chinese for foreigners in China, now is studying Doctor of Chinese in University of Belgrade, teaching Chinese in Belgrade for 3 years.


1 James. M.W. (2017). Some indicators of culture are visible, and some are under the surface. London: Cambridge University Press.

1 Hofstede insights. Country Comparison. Retrieved from:,serbia/

1 Pan. Y. (1995). Seal Script. Hangzhou: Zhejiang University Press.

2 Pan. Y. (1995). Clerical Script. Hangzhou: Zhejiang University Press.

3 Pan. Y. (1995). Regular Script. Hangzhou: Zhejiang University Press.

1 Pan. Y. (1995). Cursive Script. Hangzhou: Zhejiang University Press.

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Chinese Culture Teaching in Chinese Language Classes. Problems and Challenges of Teaching Culture Through Language
Teaching Chinese in Serbia
University of Belgrade
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chinese, culture, teaching, language, classes, problems, challenges, through, serbia
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Yingxin Ma (Author), 2018, Chinese Culture Teaching in Chinese Language Classes. Problems and Challenges of Teaching Culture Through Language, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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