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[Opinion] Teaching Chinese Characters

Posted January. 12, 2009 07:16,   


There is an effective way of teaching the Korean language to teens who have returned to the country after a long stay overseas: teaching commonly used Chinese characters. As 70 percent of Korean is derived from Chinese, a student can learn Korean much easier if he or she has knowledge of Chinese characters. It is like having a map when traveling. Many words in European languages such as English, French and German originate from Latin, which was the official language of the Roman Empire, which ruled much of Europe. Latin is inseparable from American and European school curricula no matter how badly students complain about the difficulty of learning it.

Young Koreans are not good at Chinese characters because the subject has been neglected for a long time. Seoul National University administers a reading test for Chinese characters as part of its entrance exam. Though easy Chinese characters appear on the test, many test takers find it very challenging. Jobseekers fresh out of college are also poor at Chinese characters. Sadly, their poor understanding of Chinese characters mirrors their poor comprehension skills in Korean. Though it could be argued that Korean language education is the most important, in reality, it cannot be properly done without teaching Chinese characters.

Illiteracy in Chinese characters incurs a big loss to the nation. The combined population of China and Japan, two countries whose people use Chinese characters, is 1.5 billion. Good knowledge of Chinese characters is a must for someone wishing to learn either Chinese or Japanese. China and Japan are Korea’s major rivals and partners. A good grasp of Chinese characters is also essential to better understanding of the cultures of the two neighbors, which is of paramount importance.

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. This has also resulted in widening the generation gap. Twenty former prime ministers recently urged the government to enhance Chinese character education. It shows their grave fears over the young generation`s growing inability in Chinese characters. It is pointless to split the nation into two groups involving one insisting on using Korean characters only and another demanding the use of both Chinese and Korean characters. Instead, the two sides should quickly find common ground and lay the foundation to strengthen Korean-language education.

Editorial Writer Hong Chan-sik (chansik@donga.com)