Hanja harms Korean education

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Hanja harms Korean education

Korean children are heavily weighed down by cramming, English lessons and private education from an early age. They rush from one cram school to another, burdened by their studies, tests and the pressure to get into a good university. Learning is no longer a precious experience for self-development and enlightenment, but serves to feed the obsessions and greed of parents, crippled by an ever-changing and dysfunctional education policy. This is why the future of our children, as well as our country, has become a major concern.

The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education recently announced that it will restore and strengthen the teaching of hanja, or Chinese characters, at elementary schools around the capital. The reason given for this change was that many elementary school students do not understand their textbook contents because most of the words derive from hanja. Public school classes on hanja characters are to be offered to help ease extra spending on learning hanja characters outside of regular class time. The intention sounds good, but it is actually misplaced.

The words formed by hanja characters in school textbooks are actually compounds put together by the Japanese and were introduced to Korea during the Japanese colonial days. Koreans shunned hanja after liberation because of the desire to restore our authentic alphabet, hangul. But the campaign to restore hangul was interrupted by people who advocated for the convenience of Japanese-style words made from hanja characters, and the number of hanja-based words in Korean lexicon has continued to grow. Those calling for teaching hanja characters at early stages are actually maintaining the legacy of colonial times. What a pitiful excuse.

Those who emphasize hanja education have also won the Education Ministry’s approval to administer standardized tests on hanja characters, setting the stage to make hanja proficiency an edge for entering top universities or large companies. The hanja education industry is worth about 10 billion won ($8.90 million) annually, from selling study materials for level tests and administering them. The biggest consumers of those tests are elementary school students. Adding hanja classes to the public school curriculum and developing and publishing materials will come from taxpayers. So adding hanja education will basically be fattening the profits for the after-school private education industry.

To finish high school, Chinese and Japanese students must learn all the words they will need to get through normal adult life. Korean children usually learn the basic words before they enter elementary school, putting them about many years ahead of the Chinese and Japanese children in literacy. Then they spend all their extra time learning other languages - English and hanja characters - instead of putting their energies into more creative and innovative uses. How foolish of us. The current system of hanja education is sufficient, teaching 1,800 characters at the middle- and high-school level. The meaning of a word can be understood from its sound and context, and it does not need the hanja characters. After all, we understand what is said on the radio without actually seeing the written words.

Strengthening hanja education will only undermine our native language and writing. Our children should be given more freedom to run around and play with their friends outside, not stay in the classroom learning extra hanja characters after school. They should be allowed to do and learn what they want. That is how we can raise our children with healthy minds and bodies.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

By Lee Dae-ro
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