Hangul faces new challengesToday marks the 566th anniversary of the invention of hangul, the Korean alphabet, which is one of the most creative phonetic systems in the world. It is particularly refreshing this year that academic societies involving the Korean language have decided to establish a federation to integrate various scholastic associations - long marked by divergent views on whether to use hangul only or to use it together with Chinese characters - by putting all their differences behind. At a legislative inspection session at the National Assembly that began yesterday, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle demonstrated rare bipartisanship in urging the government to designate Hangul Day as an official holiday again.
The excellence of hangul has been proven time and again, with the language receiving compliments from overseas ranging from “one of the greatest intellectual achievements of mankind” to “the best alphabet all human languages aspire to.” Thanks to such evaluations, the Korean language was chosen as the ninth international language in 2007. The number of applicants for the Topik, or Test of Proficiency in Korean, increased sharply to 450,487 last year from 82,881 in 2007. Demand for Korean is also rising as colleges abroad open curriculums on Korean studies rapidly, reaching 810 programs in 81 countries last year from 688 in 57 countries in 2010.
But it’s too early to be complacent with uninterrupted praise from abroad. According to a recent survey, only 64 percent of respondents were aware of Hangul Day - a whopping 24.1 percent decline from 88.1 percent in 2009. Even in our daily lives, one can hardly find someone who uses hangul decently. Our children and teenagers, in particular, cannot communicate with each other without resorting to expletives, not to mention an avalanche of cartoons and TV dramas that encourage them to deviate from the proper usage of hangul.
Hangul and the Korean language confront huge challenges to actively brace for a multicultural trend in our society. More than half of foreigners who were married to Korean husbands fall below the intermediate level in speaking and writing Korean, which again helps lower their kids’ proficiency in Korean. The government must provide tailor-made Korean language programs based on their competency and increase the budget. Besides the Topik, other tests also need to be devised in order to meet varying demands. Most important, however, is our national effort to accumulate rich Korean content on a permanent basis. That would be a way to pay back the debt we owe to our forefathers.