[OUTLOOK]Teaching hangul, Chinese

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[OUTLOOK]Teaching hangul, Chinese

Among the conflicts in our society, people repeat their arguments in many cases only because their points of arguments were on different points from the beginning. One such case is the fight over hangul-only, or the Korean alphabet only, education, versus Chinese character education.
The “hangul-only” argument is about the norm in using a written language, whereas the “Chinese character education” argument is about educational content. Logically, the arguments belong to different categories, so we can hardly expect a productive discussion from them. Realistically, there are enough reasons for the clash.
The most effective way to teach Chinese characters would be using them mixed with Korean, so that people get familiarized with them and then forced to learn Chinese letters, if they want to enjoy the benefit of using written language. On the other hand, if education on Chinese letters is not offered at schools, people would have to use hangul only. But both are expedient approaches, not an attitude of sincere dialogue.
A broad Chinese character education should begin in elementary school, but I oppose the method of using Chinese characters in the text mixed with hangul. First, this method discriminates against those who can’t read Chinese characters. Nationalistic logic says we should use only hangul because it is “ours,” but what really matters is the democratic logic that says anyone should at least be able to participate in written communication once they know hangul.
Second, this method goes against the important task of reducing the proportion of Chinese characters in Korean, if not rejecting them outright. Chinese characters can produce an excellent combination of words, but their use has greater side effects such as pushing away the vernacular language and reducing the Korean language’s distinguishing characteristics by producing too many short words with similar sounds.
The mixed use may solve these side effects in the written communication of intellectuals, but cannot prevent the Korean language from turning into a language hard to understand, filled with strange words in the colloquial language.
The before-mentioned two reasons can also be reasons for expanding Chinese education. The fact that people who can’t read Chinese characters can have difficulties understanding Korean tells of the need for a broad Chinese character education to enhance a democratic linguistic life.
In many cases, those who oppose Chinese education and using Chinese characters even in parentheses don’t understand the confusion of those who don’t know Chinese characters because they can actually convert hangul into Chinese. Second, people should know Chinese characters to reduce dependency on Chinese words and to foster the ability to express and communicate in Korean. The contributions of experts who studied both Korean and Chinese languages are important, but it is important to get the cooperation of all people who use the Korean language in daily life.
There is no reason to fight over hangul-only education or Chinese character education. These are two separate issues and the answer is relatively easy. One is about a controversy over the need for Chinese education, and the other, over whether to make the exposure to Chinese characters a national policy. I can conclude that the education is necessary but the exposure is problematic.
If we are concerned about the nationalistic pressure of uniformity, whether to openly mix Chinese characters and foreign languages in the records other than official documents or textbooks or whether to turn non-Korean words, even Arabic numbers, into hangul, these decisions should be left to the individual and society.

* The writer is a professor emeritus at Seoul National University and the editor-in-chief of the quarterly magazine Changjak-kwa-bipyong, or Creation and Criticism. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Paik Nak-chung
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