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.


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

Korean romanization — again

It’s not just Taiwan that can’t seem to get its romanization situation resolved well. “Calls for a revision of the current Romanization system for the Korean alphabet, Hangul, are gaining more ground as confusion continues on the roads, signboards and government documents after the introduction of the current form in July 2000,” reports the Korea Times.

Some 75 percent of South Koreans think the government-enacted Romanization system does not reflect the original pronunciation of Hangul properly, a survey conducted by the Yoido Institute, a think tank of the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) showed yesterday.

Of the 2,150 adults polled last week, 66.1 percent wanted the current system to be revised despite the expected financial cost, according to the survey conducted on the occasion of the 560th Hangul Day which falls on Oct. 9.

I make no claims of knowledge of which romanization system would be best for Korea, so be sure to read my comments with that in mind. But I do know to be wary of polls conducted by political parties.

Hangul was first Romanized using the McCune-Reischauer (M-R) system in the early 20th century, when a number of foreign missionaries came to the Choson Kingdom. But the country’s Romanization system underwent flip-flopping policies in the following decades.

“Confusions we experience today have been caused largely due to the arbitrary attitudes of armchair linguists and some misguided government officials,’’ said Kim Bok-moon, professor emeritus of Chungbuk National University.

Scraping the traditional M-R system, which had prevailed in the past decades, the government adopted a new system on July 7, 2000, shifting “Pusan,’’ “Kobukson (turtle ship) and “kimchi’’ into “Busan,’’ “Geobukseon’’ and “gimchi.’’

The English-language media, including the state-funded Yonhap News Agency, had resisted the change for a period of time. But, as time went by, all the news media gave in to the new system except The Korea Times, which has maintained the M-R system concluding that it is the most similar to actual pronunciation.

Let alone the tremendous cost of the revision, the main problem of the current system is that it does not ensure the exact pronunciation of the original sound of various Korean words.

No romanization system — or any other script, for that matter — ensures the exact pronunciation of the words of a language for people who do not know how that system works. It seems unlikely that the South Korean government would have promulgated an inherently unworkable system, such as the bastardized version of Wade-Giles is for Mandarin Chinese. (Proper Wade-Giles, of course, could work perfectly well for Mandarin, though I certainly don’t recommend it.)

And the author shouldn’t have written “the exact pronunciation of the original sound of various Korean words” but simply “the exact pronunciation of Korean words.”

Kim, who serves as president of the Research Institute for Korean Romanization (KOROMA), has made sole efforts to end the confusion, submitting a petition to then President Kim Dae-jung and presenting a Constitutional petition.

In a seminar at the National Assembly yesterday, he presented the disastrous result of an experiment that he conducted along with KBS TV about the new system in Itaewon, downtown Seoul, and at the Kimpo International Airport.

When he asked foreign people to read “Yeoksam-dong (???)’’ and “Geobukseon (???),’’ the majority of them pronounced them “ioksaemdong (????)’’ and “jiobuksion (?????),’’ far different from the actual sound.

Oh, no. Not another “let’s ask a random and probably clueless foreigner how to pronounce something” poll. These mean nothing. There are plenty of people in the United States who would mangle even the pronunciations of items on a menu in a Mexican restaurant; but that doesn’t mean Spanish orthography needs revision.

Because a committee under Taiwan’s Ministry of Education approved a romanization method for Taiwanese last week, some grandstanding member of the legislature is almost certainly going to force some executive-branch official who doesn’t know the system to read out loud something that was written in it, thus “proving” the system doesn’t work. It might already have happened.

According to Kim, 16 out of the newly Romanized 21 vowels of Hangul are out of sync with actual sounds when they are read by English-speaking people, who have no knowledge about the premise that “eo’’ would be pronounced as “?.’’ He has devised his own system, which he claims ensures the best pronunciations.

“Disasters that many critics expected have already begun. We can easily find serious confusion here and there,’’ Kim told The Korea Times. “We have to correct the mistake without delay before it is too late, and adopt a proper system.’’

Romanization systems seldom work well when forced into the mold of an anglicization. I wonder if romanized Korean is commonly but mistakenly referred to in Korea as “English.”

And, of course, there’s always an appeal to nationalism:

One example of what Kim cited as “losses of national interests’’ was “Koguryo’’ and “Dokdo,’’ which became objects of historical and even territorial rows with China and Japan during the past couple of years.

At a time when China spelled the ancient Korean kingdom as “Koguryo,’’ South Korea’s English-language dailies, except for The Korea Times, wrote it as “Goguryeo.’’ It was later unified into Koguryo as even the UNESCO’s World Heritage called it Koguryo.

A set of South Korean tiny islets in the East Sea, Dokdo had also been divided into “Tokto’’ and “Dokdo.’’ The Korea Times agreed to unify it into Dokdo at the recommendation of the government as an exceptional case. But the foreign news media and Web sites are still left confused between them.

The article closes:

Critics say the Romanization system should be revised in a way that best reflects the characteristics of the Korean language and the reunification of the two Koreas should also be taken into consideration.

North Korea has a system similar to the M-R system, which writes its cities and places in English as “Pyongyang,’’ “Kaesong’’ and “Mt. Kumgang’’ _ not “Pyeongyang,’’ “Gaeseong’’ and “Mt. Gumgang.’’

North Korea once proposed the unification of the different Romanization systems used by South and North Korea in a meeting of linguists from the two Koreas in Berlin, Germany, in 2002.


source: Hangul Romanization Revision Proposed, Korea Times, September 26, 2006

some comments here: More romanization debate, The Marmot’s Hole, September 29, 2006

read about hangul here: Hangul Day, Language Log, October 9, 2005

Festschrift for John DeFrancis now available for free

Most readers of Pinyin News will already know of John DeFrancis, editor of the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary and author of The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy and many other important works. (If you haven’t read The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy yet, order it now.)

In recognition of the 95th(!) birthday today of Professor DeFrancis, Sino-Platonic Papers is rereleasing Schriftfestschrift: Essays in Honor of John DeFrancis on His Eightieth Birthday. Previously, this important compilation, which runs more than 250 pages, was available only in a printed edition priced at US$35. The fifteenth-anniversary edition, however, is being released for free as a PDF (15 MB — so have a fast Internet connection, or a lot of patience).

I’d like to draw special attention to an article written in Pinyin: “Hanzi Bu Tebie Biaoyi,” by Zhang Liqing. (Zhang’s work also appears here on Pinyin Info, in her translations of The Historical Evolution of Chinese Languages and Scripts and of the amazing Comparing Chinese Characters and a Chinese Spelling Script — an evening conversation on the reform of Chinese characters.)

Feel free to print out a copy of the Schriftfestschrift for your own use or for inclusion in a library. Just don’t sell it.

The original publication contained several color photos. I’ll add those later. Also, the English tex is searchable to some degree, as I used OCR after scanning these pages; but the results weren’t perfect.

Here are the contents:

  • Tabula Gratulatoria
  • Introduction, by Victor H. Mair
  • Publications of John DeFrancis
  • Hanzi Bu Tebie Biaoyi, by Zhang Liqing
  • Typology of Writing Systems, by Zhou Youguang
  • Dui Hanzi de Jizhong Wujie, by Yin Binyong
  • The Information Society and Terminology, by Liu Yongquan
  • A Bilingual Mosaic, by Einar Haugen
  • The Polysemy of the Term Kokugo, by S. Robert Ramsey
  • Memorizing Kanji: Lessons from a Pro, by J. Marshall Unger
  • Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard, by David Moser
  • Ethnolinguistic Notes on the Dungan, by Lisa E. Husmann and William S-Y. Wang
  • Korean Views on Writing Reform, by Wm. C. Hannas
  • Language Policies and Linguistic Divergence in the Two Koreas, by Ho-min Sohn
  • Okinawan Writing Systems, Past, Present, and Future, by Leon A. Serafim
  • Proposal of a Comparative Study of Language Policies and Their Implementation in Singapore, Taiwan, and China (PRC), by Robert L. Cheng
  • The Topical Function of Preverbal Locatives and Temporals in Chinese, by Feng-fu Tsao
  • Yes-No Questions in Taipei and Peking Mandarin, by Robert M. Sanders
  • Patronizing Uses of the Particle ma: Bureaucratic Chinese Bids for Dominance in Personal Interactions, by Beverly Hong Fincher
  • Gender and Sexism in Chinese Language and Literature, by Angela Jung-Palandri
  • A zhezi Anagram Poem of the Song Dynasty, by John Marney
  • Some Remarks on Differing Correspondences in Old Chinese Assumed to Represent Different Chinese Dialects, by Nicholas C. Bodman
  • Can Taiwanese Recognize Simplified Characters?, by John S. Rohsenow
  • Simplified Characters and Their (Un)relatedness, by Chauncey C. Chu
  • The Teaching of Culture and the Culture of Teaching: Problems, Challenges, and Opportunities in Language Instruction, by Eugene Eoyang
  • The Culture Component of Language Teaching, by Kyoko Hijirida
  • Thinking About Prof. John DeFrancis, by Apollo Wu
  • Wo suo Renshi de De Xiansheng, by Chih-yu Ho
  • Two Poems for Professor John DeFrancis, by Richard F. S. Yang
  • Announcement, by Stephen Fleming

Happy birthday, John! And many happy returns!

Taiwan architecture and political statements

The main reason I haven’t been posting much lately is that for several weeks I’ve been extremely busy showing various groups of VIPs around Taipei. As the viewing floor near the top of Taipei 101, the world’s tallest building, is one of the standard stops along the tour, I usually take advantage of the bird’s-eye-view to point out some of the architectural features of the city. A few of these features are related to Chinese characters / Japanese kanji.

Japan controlled Taiwan from 1895 until 1945. The design of some significant buildings from this time reflects the desire of the Japanese authorities to put Japan’s stamp on Taiwan — in more ways than one. The buildings that now house Taiwan’s Presidential Office and the Executive Yuan (Cabinet) are from that era. Both are built in the shape of a Chinese character / kanji used in writing the name of Japan: 日. This is not a coincidence. (Before anyone asks: I haven’t seen any buildings, though, built in the shape of 本, the other character used in writing the name of Japan.)

Here are some screenshots from Google Earth, which gives satellite photos of much of the globe.

Below is Taiwan’s presidential building:
satellite photo of Taiwan's presidential building

And here is the Cabinet building, with north rotated 90 degrees clockwise:
satellite photo of Taiwan's Executive Yuan (Cabinet building)
The buildings on all but what is here the left side are additions that date from after the Japanese were forced out of Taiwan. (BTW, my old office in the Government Information Office is just below the bottom right corner of the 日.)

After the Japanese authorities were evicted from Taiwan and the island was controlled by the Chinese KMT, Taipei built a new city hall, and in so doing made an architectural statement of its own. Taipei City Hall, which is at the far end of a long road that leads to the Presidential Office, is built in the shape of two characters for the number 10, placed side by side: 十十
satellite photo of Taipei City Hall
Thus, this is 10 10, which stands for October 10, which refers to the starting date of the revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty in 1910, leading to the establishment of the Republic of China. (Officially speaking, Taiwan remains the Republic of China and October 10 remains its “National Day.”)

click to enlarge satellite photo of Taipei, showing the Presidential Office and Executive Yuan in the west and Taipei City Hall in the east
(click photo to enlarge)

If you’d like to use Google Earth to view these for yourself, enter the following coordinates:

  • Presidential Office: 25 02 24 N, 121 30 42 E
  • Executive Yuan: 25 02 47 N, 121 31 14 E
  • Taipei City Hall: 25 02 15 N, 121 33 52 E

Also, the pond behind the former Japanese Governor-General’s house, now the modestly named Taipei Guest House, is supposed to be, with a little help from some decorative rocks, in the shape of the character for “heart”:

But I haven’t found any photographs or maps that show this clearly.

Can anyone comment on the architecture of Japanese-era governmental buildings in Korea?

South Korea’s ‘English villages’

English continues to expand in South Korea, which is now home to “the world’s biggest English immersion camp,” according to an article from Agence France-Presse.

Speaking Korean is banned in this English-only village that has sprung up somewhat incongruously from the paddy fields of this rice-growing region north of Seoul as part of a linguistic experiment pioneered in South Korea.

“The rule is to speak English,” said Chicago-born Glensne to his shy and giggling pupils as they shuffled between their kitchen tables and his desk to ask in English for cooking materials to make Mexican nachos….

The Paju English village is more than a language theme park. It is a real village of bricks and mortar modeled on an English village where hundreds of people live, eat, sleep, shop and learn.

It sits on a 277,000 m2 plot of land, the world’s biggest English immersion camp, boasting its own brewery pub, bookstore, bakery, restaurant, bank and theater along a main street that leads to a big domed-city hall.

Electric trams run through the main boulevard, which branches off to classrooms and houses to accommodate 100 teachers and 70 staff from various English-speaking countries and 550 students. Korean is outlawed and even written signs are banned.

“We wanted to create an environment where students feel they left Korea behind,” said Jeffrey Jones, head of the Paju camp.

Jones, former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea, said Koreans really need a change to their English education which focuses too much on grammar, reading and vocabulary.

“They spend a lot of time learning English. They can read probably better than I can, but they have trouble speaking,” he said. “One of the things we do here is we break the wall of fear. They learn not to be afraid and they learn to speak.”

I found this part especially interesting:

English proficiency has become increasingly important for Korean job seekers. Interviews conducted in English are common at big-name companies like Samsung Electronics, Hyundai Motor and LG Philips.

source: English only in South Korea’s teaching towns, AFP, April 5, 2006

The state of translation in Korea

A new book with the provocative title of Are Translators Traitors? examines Korea’s translation situation and pronounces it “deplorable.” As a professor of Western history at Woosuk University, the author, Park Sang-ik, is perhaps especially sensitive to how few translations of Western classics Korean translators have produced compared with their Japanese counterparts. Many of those translations, he adds, are retranslations from Japanese texts.

The problem is not only the “shameful” quantity but also quality of translations. Park confessed that he was “disillusioned and shocked” to see how shoddy and cursory the translations were, even those done by “renowned” scholars, and how many translated works belong within the shameful category. Park took an example of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” translated by an Italian language professor, which is full of mistranslations and grammatically wrong expressions. And this is just the tip of a huge iceberg, according to Park. It is almost customary for professors to just let or make graduate students do translations with their own credits, which have spawned bad cross-cultural texts.

This reminds me of how some of China’s English textbooks have been produced:

  1. A professor in China who is not a native speaker of English is given a book contract.
  2. The professor then hands the work over to his students, none of whom are native speakers of English.
  3. The students, quite understandably not giving a damn about the professor’s project, proceed to plagiarize previously produced textbooks, reproducing old errors and introducing new ones.
  4. The book is published, further establishing the professor as an expert on English.

I’ve seen this process in action myself.

Back to the article now. Part of the problem is that in academic reviews professors are seldom given appropriate credit for any translations they might produce.

Another factor is the poor remuneration for the work:

For example, if a translator sells about 5,000 copies of a 10,000-won ($10) book — a big hit if it’s a social science or humanities studies book — he could have only around 5 million won [US$5,000] in hand at the end. With such minuscule reward for sweaty work, you will either churn out low quality translations or leave the job once and for all, the author writes.

I suspect that many translators, regardless of their target language, would recognize that situation — and even that’s without factoring in the woes of “work for hire.”

Pointing to the fragile base for the nation’s translation, Park went on further to stress that Korea does not even have a proper English-Korean dictionary. Quoting an English professor, Park said the majority of Korean-English dictionaries are translated versions of Japanese-English ones.

“These dictionaries have omitted many Korean words with purely Korean linguistic origins (as they had translated Japanese definitions word for word),” Park quoted the English scholar.

The article closes with Park pronouncing another of those warnings of “doom” for the Korean language if nothing is done to correct the situation.

Is [the] Korean Language Doomed?, Korea Times, January 20, 2006

Korean brands, images, and naming

Choe Yong-shik, the author of What’s Wrong With Korea’s Global Marketing, has some interesting comments on company names and branding in South Korea.

He notes that in 1992 the Korean company Samsung switched its logo, changing from using the Chinese characters 三星 to the Roman alphabet (with a stylized A):
Samsung logo

This, he says, is representative of a trend:

Since the 1990s, many companies have carried out similar corporate identity projects that have seen the gradual extinction of the practice of using Chinese character logos. Companies have increasingly leaned toward more appealing names in the Roman alphabet as a means to establish a global brand image.

Using Chinese characters as an international brand image in today’s global market is not only ineffective, but it also borders on silliness.

source: Samsung, LG’s Brand Globalization History, Korea Times, December 26, 2005

names, ethnicity, and colonialism

Joel at Far Outliers has an interesting post on how Koreans chose Japanese names during the Japanese colonial period. (Spotted on Language Hat.)

Regarding name frequency in Taiwan, I once did some checking of an old version of Chih-Hao Tsai’s invaluable list of Chinese names (in Taiwan) and ended up with the top ten names covering 50 percent of the population. Now that he’s got an improved name-list online, I should check again.

Also here in Taiwan, few aborigines have taken the trouble to change their official names, now that they finally have an alternative to the sinicized versions that had been forced upon them by Taiwan’s officialdom. It will be interesting to see how the situation changes, if at all, now that new national ID cards are finally being issued. For more on this, see Romanization to be allowed on some Taiwan ID cards, including the link in the note.