To Learn Korean, It's Best to Study All Those Squiggly Little Characters

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To Learn Korean, It's Best to Study All Those Squiggly Little Characters

"East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,." Rudyard Kipling wrote in "The Ballad of East and West." And this cliche was embodied once again in the book launch of "Chinese Characters in Korean," by James C. Whitlock Jr., an American career diplomat who once served in Korea. In the preface to his book, Mr Whitlock confessed to great difficulty in learning Korean.

Koreans take pride in the fact that han-geul is a phonetic alphabet, which makes it logical and therefore undemanding to learn. But enunciation is of secondary significance in learning a language and this is especially true when learning Korean. As much as 70 percent of the Korean language is based on the 2,300 Chinese characters in common usage.These characters are known as hanja in Korean and are ideograms, not phonetic; in other words, each character has a distinct meaning.

The hardest task for those who aim to master Korean is to recognize the Chinese characters and the two-character combinations which comprise a large part of Korean vocabulary. Mr. Whitlock, whose gifts in learning foreign languages are evident by his fluency in five West European languages and Swahili, found his seventh target problematic. The fact that he had to learn 2,300 Chinese characters was enormously overwhelming. Then one day, he found a method that worked for him; it was based on the fact that Chinese characters have 214 fundamental parts or radicals. Thus, he gave his book the subtitle, "A 'Radical' Approach: Learn 2,300 Chinese Characters Through Their 214 Radicals."

An enlightening example of this is the Korean word, chaebol, which is composed of two characters. The first suggests wealth and is signified by the radical meaning cowrie, which meant money in ancient times. The second radical means clan. This way of learning Korean is much more satisfactory for most people than rote memorization, and is quite practical not only for learning the Korean language but also for understanding the culture. One of the most elusive Korean concepts is han which cannot be thoroughly appreciated by the translation resentment, grudge or umbrage. The author suggests that his readers need to understand its component radicals, which represent heart and stubborn, in order to perceive the true core of the idea.

For the convenience of users, the book is set out like a dictionary. It presents lists of radicals, Chinese characters and notes on the characters in the first part and, vocabulary lists in the second part. The lists are alphabetized separately in English and Korean and also arranged by Chinese character radicals.

Mr. Whitlock remarked, "I hope this book will be a practical guide to facilitate learning one of the world's hardest languages, and perhaps to make it a more interesting process." And, he says, he hopes this analytical approach to learning Korean might help bridge the gap between East and West.

by Chun Su-jin

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