Back to the ABC’s in Korean education?
Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 12, 2009
THE TERM Anglosphere is sometimes used to refer to the English-speaking countries whose culture ultimately derives from Great Britain and their shared interests. James C. Bennett founded The Anglosphere Institute and published in 2004 The Anglosphere Challenge: Why the English-Speaking Nations Will Lead the Way in the Twenty-First Century.
There is also the term Sinosphere, which is defined narrowly as those countries with primarily Chinese-speaking residents. Some, however, define it broadly to include other countries in East Asia that were significantly influenced by Chinese culture and language—particularly written Chinese characters, or kanji in Japanese and hanja in Korean.
The broadly defined Sinosphere is unlikely to function in the role Mr. Bennett envisions for the Anglosphere because the countries don’t share the same language and the contemporary cultural dissimilarities are too great. Yet everyone in Japan and Korea is aware of the impact of Chinese characters on their languages and cultures, even though both countries have developed their own phonetic alphabets. Written communication in Korean is conducted almost exclusively in their phonetic alphabet, called Hangeul.
But an estimated 70% of the underlying words themselves in both Japanese and Korean were derived from Chinese, to which local pronunciations were applied. Thus the word for teacher, or a title of respect, 先生, is pronounced xiansheng in Chinese, sensei in Japanese, and seonseng in Korean.
Most of the South Korean public does not consider hanja literacy to be that important, though the Chinese characters are taught there starting in junior high school. But just as there is a back-to-basics movement in Japanese education, some in South Korea are promoting earlier and more extensive instruction in hanja. A brief article on that effort written by the Seoul correspondent of the Nishinippon Shimbun appeared this morning. I couldn’t find an English-language article in any of the Korean papers, so here’s a quick translation:
“The National Federation for Promoting Hanja Education in South Korea has petitioned the government to formally adopt instruction in hanja, the use of which was once widespread, as a course of study in primary schools. The federation maintains that instruction only in Hangeul, the alphabetical characters that express only sound, hinder understanding of academic and other abstract terminology.
“The application states, ‘The result of the mistaken policy of using only Hangeul has been to confront the cultural life of South Koreans with a crisis greater than the Asian currency crisis of 1997.’ It urges education in both hanja and Hangeul as the national written language. It was signed by 20 former prime ministers, including Kim Jong-pil, and submitted to the President’s office.
“A federation official states that the policy to remove hanja from South Korean society and use only Hangeul was promoted primarily by President Pak Jeon-hi (1963-1979). Among the reasons were (1) A reaction against Japanese-language education during the colonial period, and (2) The low recognition rate of hanja among people after independence.
“About 70% of the South Korean language is derived from Chinese characters, in which the characters are given a Korean reading. One example is 新鮮 (fresh), which is read shinseon in Korean (shinsen in Japanese and xinxian in Chinese). The federation points out that if people know the meaning of 乱 (meaning revolt, uprising, or disturbance, and read nan in modern South Korean, ran in Japanese, and luan in Chinese), they can intuit the meanings of words that incorporate the character, such as 混乱 (confusion, disorder) or 騒乱 (riot). (Note: That’s just how it works in Japanese, too.)
“More people are taking the hanja certification examination every year because large companies include questions about their meanings on the tests they administer to prospective employees. The application might spur a reevaluation of the ‘Hangeul-only’ Korean society.”
Afterwords: If anyone can find an English-language account of this, send me a link and I’ll incorporate it as an update. Here is an editorial by the Dong-a Ilbo supporting the effort.
Most of Korea`s cultural heritage is preserved in Chinese characters. As the number of people illiterate in Chinese character swells, precious cultural legacies of Korea such as classical literature are growing useless.
For those who read Korean, here is the federation’s website. It has a photo of their monthly magazine.
Reading this makes me wish yet again there were 36 hours in a day so I could find the time to maintain my Korean language studies. Studying from Japanese to Korean is a big help, by the way. It doesn’t take long to figure out the Korean readings for the Chinese characters working backwards from kanji, and that facilitates memorization.