Korean university students show little knowledge of Chinese characters

A group of 384 freshmen at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea were tested on their knowledge of hanja (Chinese characters, as are sometimes used in writing words in Korean). Although this sample isn’t particularly large, I haven’t seen any indication that anyone believes it is not representative of Korean university freshmen as a whole. The results — at least for those who believe that Chinese characters still play a major role in literacy in Korean — are fairly dramatic:

  • 20 percent couldn’t write their own names in Chinese characters
  • 77 percent couldn’t write their mother’s name in Chinese characters
  • 83 percent couldn’t write their father’s name in Chinese characters
  • 71 percent couldn’t write “new student” in Chinese characters
  • 96 percent couldn’t write “economy” in Chinese characters
  • 98 percent couldn’t write “encyclopedia” in Chinese characters

And as for reading Chinese characters?

  • 93 percent couldn’t read the word for “ambition” as written in Chinese characters
  • 96 percent couldn’t read the word for “honor” as written in Chinese characters
  • 99 percent couldn’t read the word for “compromise” as written in Chinese characters

Remember, this refers to students at a prominent university.

A pro-character editorial in response to this states:

Seventy percent of Korean words including most conceptual and abstract nouns are made of Chinese characters. Terminology used in humanities, social studies and natural science are mostly Chinese characters. It is difficult to understand the meaning of words by pronunciation alone, without learning about the meanings of the Chinese characters that represent them. Words such as “recurrence”, “repatriation” and “homing” contain the Chinese character that stands for “return.” Without knowing that character, you must memorize each of those words separately by sound.

Whoever wrote that needs to be sent to the board to write “Chinese characters are not words” one hundred times. But I don’t know what it would take for the author to realize that learning words by sound rather than Chinese characters is entirely normal — exactly what native speakers of languages the world over do.

For a little more information on the complications in the use of Chinese characters with Korean, see Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma by William C. Hannas, especially the sections on the so-called homonym problem and the supposed transitivity [of Chinese characters] across languages.

sources:

See also Occidentalism’s thread on this, which already has more than thirty comments.

One thought on “Korean university students show little knowledge of Chinese characters

  1. I have to admit that I’m a bit surprised by those numbers. I had thought that Koreans were studying Chinese like never before. I thought that it was starting to become a standard subject in high school.

    It is difficult to understand the meaning of words by pronunciation alone, without learning about the meanings of the Chinese characters that represent them. Words such as “recurrence”, “repatriation” and “homing” contain the Chinese character that stands for “return.” Without knowing that character, you must memorize each of those words separately by sound.

    I think there is something to this. Even in English, understanding the etymology of a word is useful sometimes. It’s not something that’s vital for everyone, but it’s useful for those who study literature.

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