Happy 한글 Day!
I was in Hong Kong on the train back to the airport not too long ago. The work was done and I was supposed to be thinking about how to write up what we had accomplished. Instead, I found myself just staring listlessly out the window, daydreaming.
When the train pulled into 靑衣 qingyi station, there was an advertisement that caught my eye for a moment:
It momentarily brought back memories of war stories told by Korean folk who happened to meet a real-live Chinese person in some context. They couldn't speak each others' languages, but they could communicate with each other in spite of this fact because the Korean had studied Chinese characters so diligently in middle and high school.
Hmmmmmm. Right. I'll bet it was a really deep conversation, too. Can I just see your transcript of that conversation there for a minute?
Korea has the two camps of education forever bickering about whether the 국민 need to learn Chinese characters or not. If we discount the nonsense (예: "Chinese characters are mini-pictures, so they involve both hemispheres of the brand and thus they lead to more balanced and better brain development"), the pro side seems to have three main arguments:
- It's a vocabulary building aid
The argument goes that if you don't know the word 명랑, but you know 명 means bright and 랑 means bright, you can guess that 명랑 means bright. Alternatively, if you are translating something written in a foreign language by a new philosopher and he coins a new word in his foreign language original, you can invent a new Korean word to translate it based on the meaning of the original word and using the Chinese vocabulary roots in Korean. Then if you just write the Chinese in your translated text, all the readers will instantly understand all of the nuances of this newly-coined word. Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight.
This is hogwash.
Native speakers already have a feel for the fact that there is a syllable out there that is pronounced "명" and seems to mean something like "light" or "enlighten." It makes absolutely no difference whether this speaker knows how to write that syllable in Chinese. When I was in school, we learned the Greek roots that underpin many vocabulary items in English, but we didn't learn how to write them in the Greek alphabet. That would have been so much wasted effort but orders of magnitude less than the Chinese case because at least the Greeks used an alphabet. Want to teach vocabulary building blocks? Do it. Why focus on how they were written in China?
- It's a link to our literary past
It is true that 99.9999% of pre-modern content was written in classical Chinese, and if you want to learn to read it, you will have to memorize a bunch of Chinese words. However it is not true that memorizing a bunch of Chinese characters equates to literacy in classical Chinese. There will always be specialists who learn to read the original documents and everyone else will read Korean translations. There is a lot of stuff written in mixed script from earlier in the modern era, but this trend already seems to have died a hard death, or at least it has contracted a terminal case of "write so the readers can understand," so new editions of older works have the Chinese relegated to parenthetical notes.
- China is growing and it's a communicative link to China
There is quite a bit of debate these days in the press over whether China is the up-and-coming power or whether starry-eyed dreamers are mis-analyzing the facts. Fine. China will become an important economic partner for Korea either way. But having everyone in the country memorize a bunch of Chinese characters is not going to be the most effective way to improve that relationship. In the first place, the mainland Chinese have simplified the writing of many of the characters in use, so they are no longer the same in appearance as the ones used in Korea or Taiwan or Hong Kong, for that matter (예: 億 ☞亿 , 龍 ☞龙, 義 ☞义). Surely this fact alone should give pause to educators thinking of investing precious student time in the memorization of 2,000 of these beasts for the purpose of improving economic cooperation with China. Point two is that Chinese use the words in different ways than Koreans do. Look back to the hotline 熱線 that brought on this tirade in the first place (Other 예: 東西, 中心, 鸡尾, 紹介 vs. 介绍). Also, many high-frequency Chinese characters aren't even used in Korea (예: 你, 呢, 吗, 甭, 甩 (to clarify, that is not the simplified form of 電, which looks like this: 电)). All of this points to the same conclusion as #2 above: there will continue to be specialists who learn Chinese as a language and this will help communication between China and Korea.
Ironically, I've mostly seen the memorization of Chinese characters hurt the many Korean students who are trying to learn Chinese. When starting to learn, the Korean students tend to want to see the characters for each vocabulary item, dialog, or whatever (because many of them are familiar). The teachers usually oblige, to facilitate the understanding of their beginning students. So the students get into funny habits when they come across Chinese characters. First they look at it and think of the Korean pronunciation. They know that the Chinese pronunciation is similar to the Korean with some funny little twist, so they add a funny little twist to the Korean pronunciation as they say it. Problem is, since they didn't bother to learn it right in the first place, the funny little twist that gets added is wrong as often as it is right. This is doubly true of characters that are homophones in Korean but not in Chinese. As a consequence, I've seen many Chinese teachers who refuse to show the characters to their Korean students and focus on education through pinyin instead, which seems to result in better speakers of Chinese.
In spite of having invested a bit of time in the study of Chinese characters myself, for the arguments outlined above, I think it is a colossal waste of time and resources to force everyone to do the same. If some people enjoy the subject and want to study, more power to them. But there is no valid reason to subject the entire populace to it.