Is it necessary to learn Hanja to be fluent in Korean?
But here is why I am learning Hanja anyway:
The story begins a thousand years BC…
Just kidding. Well, that IS how far back the Chinese characters date, but I don’t need to go that far back to tell my story. My decision to learn them is only a few weeks old despite my Korean learning spanning almost half a decade. I learned Hangul right away. It was quick and easy. And all the Korean textbooks, phrasebooks, blogs, internet pages, etc. I have come across were written exclusively in Hangul. So naturally, I never felt any need to learn Hanja. Not to mention, there is so many Hanja characters. And it looks insanely complicated. Like, writing “ten thousand” as 萬 instead of 만? Or “time” as 時 instead of 시?
What is the difference between Hanja and Hangul?
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The difference between Hanja and Hangul is… actually, there is hardly any similarity. Apart from both being used to write down human language.
Hangul is an alphabet – it has letters which encode sounds. Just like the Roman alphabet in which this is written. Hanja are characters that represent whole words or even phrases. Simply put, Hanja are Chinese characters historically used to write down Korean language.
There is 24 letters in Hangul, and 214 radicals that make up Hanja. By the end of high school, Koreans should have learned 1,800 Hanja characters. OK, but how many Hanja are there in total?
How many Hanja are there?
In 2008 a Dictionary of Chinese characters Korean use which contains 53,667 Chinese characters was published and became the world’s biggest Chinese character dictionary. Of course, dictionary so detailed (it took $25 million and more than 30 years to make!) has a lot of obscure, only historically used characters. And it seems despite its name containing “Korean use” characters from Chinese languages and Japanese have also been included.
Is Hanja still used in Korea?
Today Hangul, Korean native alphabet, is almost exclusively used. For example, if you go to Naver News you will struggle to find more than one or two Hanja character in whole of today’s news. And Hanja use has been decreasing by the decade.
You can read whole novels without ever coming across Hanja. However, since words can have the same writing in Hangul but have different meaning, for example, mal (말) can mean “horse”, or “word”, or “end”, or “talk”, etc. Hanja is still used in areas where there absolutely is no room for ambiguity, like law and some other humanities.
Another place where Hanja is used is in Korean names. Most commonly, Korean names consists of one syllable for family name, followed by two syllables for given name and those three syllables come with corresponding Hanja characters which tell of the name’s meaning as well as make two people with same names easier to distinguish in legal documents.
This too is changing recently, though. If you watch The Return of Superman (which is really good for practicing Korean language, btw) you will notice most children have names based on Native Korean words like Haru (하루), Deahan (대한), Minguk (민국), Manse (만세), Sarang (사랑); while the twins Seo-eon (서언) and Seo-jun (서준) seem to have traditional Korean generation name and thus probably have their own Hanja attached to the names.
Are Chinese characters used in Korea similar to those used in China or Japan
Since Hanja are so rarely used and there is not many of them there was never any need to reform them, unlike in Chinese and Japanese where they are used by the thousands and the need to simplify them in order to make life easier emerged. Because of this Hanja is still almost identical to traditional Chinese characters. Sadly, this means that even if you learn Hanja you won’t recognize much of Hanzi (characters used in China) and Kanji (characters used in Japan alongside the two syllabaries Hiragana and Katakana). The good news is that traditional forms of Chinese characters are still used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, so you will get some extra benefit from learning Hanja.
So, without further ado,
Why am I learning Hanja?
For Westerners I doubt there is a part of language learning more daunting and mystical than Chinese characters. It is difficult to describe to someone who already knows how to read them, but just looking at Chinese characters made my brain shut down under the onslaught of jumbles of indecipherable little lines.
And I didn’t like that feeling.
Then there were some words in Korean which simply refused to be stored in my memory. I learned hundreds of words after them but some words remained unmemorized all the way from my first days of Korean learning.
And honestly, seeing Hanja written with Korean calligraphy in historical dramas just looked incredibly cool.
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So, I grabbed a book called Useful Chinese Characters for Learners of Korean and got to work.
You can read my review of it: Useful Chinese Characters for Learners of Korean.
So far I’ve only learned 30 characters and my life has already changed. And I’m not even kidding.
I immediately connected them with some of the Korean vocabulary I already knew. As expected. But what I didn’t expect was that now when I come across a Chinese character, no matter in which language, it doesn’t look like a jumble of lines any more. I may not know its meaning but I can see the form. If someone asked me, I could probably reproduce it, which was absolutely impossible before.
Another thing that happened which sent my heart racing is that I recognized a sign for exit (出口) in a Japanese game I’ve been playing for years. It may seem like a tiny insignificant thing but just think about it: a few days ago I saw that drawing as some meaningless doodle in a game but now I know where it comes from and what it means.
Me few days ago and me now are not the same person any more.
Knowledge is amazing.
You can buy Useful Chinese Characters for Learners of Korean on Amazon.
Next: → Hanja textbook review