Teaching Chinese Characters

2013-05-13

More Korean students are learning Chinese characters as special purpose high schools, colleges, and even companies give extra points for earning Chinese character proficiency certificates. The trend has given rise to a movement to teach Chinese characters in elementary schools, sparking controversy.

Learning Chinese Characters

The recent boom in learning Chinese characters started because a certificate of Chinese character proficiency works as an advantage in all sorts of entrance tests. Extra points are given in college admission or job recruitment when a person has a Chinese character proficiency certificate, causing a surge in the number of applicants for the proficiency tests. The proficiency tests are sponsored by a number of organizations, and if a person scores above a certain level, that person is given bonus points in various tests and school admissions. Extra advantages aside, more parents are teaching their children Chinese characters, because learning them supposedly helps young students with their studies. In general, about 70% of Korean words use Chinese characters, leading to an assumption that young children can get a better understanding of the Korean language as well. Learning Chinese characters can supposedly boost a student’s memorization capability, since each Chinese character has to be memorized. Also adding to the spiking popularity of Chinese characters is the expectation that the knowledge of Chinese characters would come in handy as China emerges as the world’s economic superpower.

Teaching Chinese Characters

Chinese characters have dominated the Korean language for a long time. Following the establishment of the Republic of Korea government, a new act on the exclusive use of Hangeul was legislated in 1948, which stipulated that only Hangeul be used in writing. The act was implemented in phases, with schools teaching Chinese characters in separate classes. Even the words in Korean language textbooks were written in both Hangeul and in Chinese characters. But in the ensuing years, Chinese character classes disappeared in elementary, middle, and high schools, in that order. Today there are no Chinese characters in Korean textbooks and no classes for Chinese characters in the official school curriculum. If a student wanted to learn Chinese characters, he or she had to resort to private means. But Korean parents’ fervor for better education led to a nearly 20% annual growth in the education market for Chinese characters over the past ten years. Roughly 380,000 people took Chinese character proficiency tests in 2012, about half of whom are estimated to be elementary school students.

Resurrection of Chinese Characters Education

There have been steady calls for resurrecting courses for Chinese characters in public schools. Proponents of Chinese character classes say that although Hangeul is Korea’s own unique alphabet and should be cherished, Chinese characters are just as useful and necessary. Chinese character advocates reason that 70% of Korean words are based on Chinese words, so learning Chinese characters helps with the study of the Korean language. Also, most classic literary works in Korea are written in Chinese, implying that Chinese characters are an important part of Korean culture. On the other hand, opponents of the use of Chinese characters claim that reinstituting Chinese character courses would undermine the exclusive use of Hangeul that they have worked so hard to establish. As to the claim that Chinese-based Korean words are hard to understand without separate markings in Chinese characters, opponents argue that homonyms are found in other languages as well and the problem would be solved naturally once the older generation, more used to Chinese characters, passes. They maintain that the effort used in memorizing tens of thousands of different characters would be better spent elsewhere. But the calls for reinstituting Chinese courses are indeed growing louder, as demonstrated in a trial request to determine the constitutionality of the Basic Act on Korean Language, an alternative legislated to replace the previous law mandating the exclusive use of the Korean language, or a motion to include Chinese characters in elementary school textbooks.

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