October 9, 2008 / 7:32 AM / 10 years ago

Chinese creeps in on Korean language birthday

SEOUL (Reuters Life!) - As South Korea celebrated on Thursday the birth of its writing system, one of the country’s leading school districts said it thinks its students should spend more time learning Chinese characters.

The Korean writing system, called Hangeul, was invented about 600 years ago as a simple and elegant way to spread literacy and bolster national identity.

For centuries after Hangeul’s birth, Koreans have had a love and hate relationship with Chinese characters which turned up in government documents and refined poetry, much to the dismay of critics who said they were dragging down the Korean language.

In almost every South Korean blurb about Hangeul, the government extols it as one of the world’s most scientific writing systems and a source of national pride.

About 70 percent of Korean words are derived from Chinese characters. North Korea has dropped their use as much as possible to promote what it feels is a pure Korean language.

The South has also moved away in order to remove archaic Chinese-character terms that have cluttered up public documents and made it difficult to write in computer word processing programs.

This month, one of the country’s most influential school districts began a program to expand teaching in Chinese characters, which may cause others to follow suit.

The educators said that in order for its students to be better able to take on challenges presented by China and Japan, which both use Chinese characters in their writing, its charges should bolster their skills in the writing system.

“With the increasing geopolitical importance of the East Asia and growing cultural exchange, we thought Chinese character education could help our students adopt a broader perspective,” said Park Eun-kyung, an official with Seoul’s Gangnam District Office of Education.

At present, South Korean middle and high school students are required to learn 900 Chinese characters. They also study English, spending hours in cram schools to better their skills.

A person needs to know about 2,000 to 3,000 characters and the rules of grammar to read a newspaper in Chinese.

Under the advisory plan by the Gangnam school district, considered one of the country’s best, students would have to learn 900 character by elementary school, which opens the door to learn even more in later years.

“Since 70 percent of Korean words are derived from Chinese characters, becoming better versed in them will definitely help children better appreciate the Korean language,” said Park Sung-kyu, a professor of Korean literature in classic Chinese at Korea University.

Seoul National University linguistics professor Kwon Jae-il said Chinese characters, called “hanja” in Korean, were used in South Korean schools from the late 1940s until the 1960s only when necessary, often in parenthesis next to the term in Korean.

By the 1970s, the government moved to eliminate hanja from school textbooks and official documents, he said.

“Studying hanja to increase cultural and political exchange with China and Japan is an absurd idea,” Kwon said.

“Learning Chinese or Japanese will be more effective.”

Writing by Jon Herskovitz, editing by Miral Fahmy

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