A better way to improve learningThe school administrative authority of Seoul has announced that elementary and middle schools in the capital will offer optional after-school courses on Chinese characters, or hanja, starting from the fall semester. There had been high demand for hanja characters in the private education market, with ever more home-study materials being published, books with cartoon illustrations, and preparatory materials for standardized level tests. Finally, public schools have come around to meet the demand.
Some, however, are against the move, arguing that adding hanja characters to after-school education programs will only increase private education competition and add to the burden on students. But there are ways to avoid such side effects.
It’s important to realize the differences between phonograms - like hangul, the Korean alphabet - and ideograms - the concept-driven nature of hanja characters. Currently school textbooks abound in words with sounds borrowed from traditional Chinese characters. Students find many words in textbooks difficult to understand and relate to, not because they are hanja characters, but because they are of Chinese origin. They abhor words in hanja, not because they cannot read them, but because they do not understand their meaning. As a result, 80 percent of elementary and secondary school students fall behind in their comprehension of classroom studies.
Therefore, we can see that a lack of knowledge about hanja characters is a major reason why so many students fare poorly at school. This can lead to resistance and aversion to studies and even to teenage violence. I feel gratitude toward Seoul’s education administrators for recognizing the everyday struggles of Korean students and coming up with a suitable proposal.
It is high time that we realize the importance of learning hanja characters. But the goal of strengthening students’ comprehension of Korean words of Chinese origin cannot be achieved through optional after-school programs. Such a program would mean that hanja characters would be taught only to a selective group of students. Hanja characters should be regularly taught during normal class times and in all classes. There is a saying: “Strike while the iron is hot.” It is both ineffective and foolish to set aside the difficult hanja-based words and breeze through them in one after-school class. That is like striking the iron while it’s cold.
I believe the key to better academic performance lies with better comprehension of hanja characters. Chinese-derived hanja words fill our textbooks, from math to social studies. Those hanja characters should become part of classes. That would be the start of a true education of hanja characters and improve school performance. Teaching vocabulary is a fundamental role of teachers in all fields, not just for teachers who specialize in Chinese characters. Routine teaching and familiarization of hanja characters could ease the resistance to separate school work and courses on hanja characters through after-school programs. Enhancing the comprehension level of hanja characters in the everyday classroom is the best way to raise the academic standard of our students and correct the understanding of Korean words.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
By Jeon Kwang-jin