한자 (Hanja) is like the boogeyman for learning Korean. Hanja is endlessly referenced and is this never-ending source of conversation enders. Want to win an argument about the Korean language? Throw the word "Hanja" in. Bam. pie hole shut. But Hanja shouldn't be this awful beast of an obstacle to learning Korean. I personally grew tired of hearing about it and not knowing why it was important or why people even cared. It really shouldn't be feared.
While certainly not necessary to learn basic and intermediate Korean, Hanja does make life a lot easier. Honestly even a survival knowledge of Hanja makes Korean a lot more manageable. Like all skills in life, there are varying degrees of mastery and the more you learn, the more useful it becomes. Think of it as a car owner's knowledge of auto repair. Necessary? Not at all but if you know even the basics like how to jumpstart a dead battery or change a tire it does tend to make things not as scary.
So let's start out with some history. First and foremost, Hanja is not Chinese (the language). If you hear anyone, including a well meaning native Korean speaker, who refers to Hanja as Chinese, please slap them gently across the face for me. Mandarin is not Hanja. Hanja is not Cantonese. It never was. It never will be. 한자 are individual characters that, when combined into a sentence, form 한문, or Traditional (Classical) Chinese writing. The differences are subtle but clearly exist. From a Korean linguist via email: 한문 consists of 한자. 한문 refers to full sentences whereas 한자 means Chinese letters. Sometimes both terms are used interchangeably to call Chinese characters in general. Simply put, Hanja is a written language that should probably be dead but isn't. 한자 slash 한문 formed the partial basis for many languages including Japanese and Mandarin. Although it is true that knowing Hanja will help one learn these other languages quicker, knowing Hanja is not the same as knowing Chinese or Japanese. It's like the similarities in Romanantic languages; knowing Spanish of course makes learning English or French easier. However, French speakers cannot effectively communicate with Spanish speakers just because they both have Latin-based languages.
Linguistically, it all starts with China. Traditional Chinese script has existed in various forms for thousands of years. However, like all languages, it evolved and underwent reform countless times. One such time occurred around the 1940s with a government-sponsored initiative to add a simplified Chinese script in an effort to increase literacy. This was not designed to replace the traditional script, which other countries had been using for the basis for their own languages. Korean was one such language that maintained the old script. Japanese, in comparison, currently uses hiragana, katakana and kanji (revised Hanja). Since the mid 1940s, Japan has used simplified versions of Traditional Chinese letters and therefore currently don't fully resemble their old forms found in the copy of a original known as Hanja. That is to say, Traditional Chinese, Korean Hanja and Japanese Kyujitai developed relatively independent of each other.
Although Korean has expanded from its original dependency on the 천자문 (Thousand Character Classic), Hanja was still the literary script of choice in Korea for centuries despite the creation of the native script 한글 (Hangul) in the 1440s. Koreans now proudly celebrate Hangul as a gift to the world from the great King Sejong, but it might surprise you to find out that it was not exactly well received back then. The literati were understandably upset when a script that was easy enough to learn in a day emerged as a possible contender to the traditional Chinese script that took them decades to master. Certainly such an uncivilized script could only be used by the lower classes; a poor man's Chinese. Some of Hangul's early nicknames include 암글 (women's script) and 아침글 (the script you can learn within a morning). Hangul did not begin to resemble the nationalistic script of choice that it is today until 1894. Two years later, Hangul was used to publish pro-Korean, anti-Chinese sentiments in The Independent (독립신문). The adoption of Hangul increasingly became related with the spread of anti-Japanese nationalism as well as Korean Catholicism. All that from something that'll take you less than a day to get used to.
As Traditional Chinese took a different linguistic direction, Korea faithfully adhered to their own development of the Korean language with the phonetic preservation of old Hanja as well as the more recent additions of foreign words (외래어) from languages such as English and Japanese. Although currently Hangul is the obvious script of choice to decipher and distribute Hanja-based documents and texts (as well as express original words and thoughts) several other Korean writing systems preceded Hangul including 이두 (Idu), 향찰 (Hyangchal), and 구결 (Gugyeol). Each had their varying levels of usage though all have pretty much been cast to the wayside. Hangul is simply much easier to use.
The upside to Hangul phonetization is you don't have to write in Hanja. No stroke counting, no big calligraphy pen, to questionable looking pictograph, nothing. Just a phonetic spelling of the word. This would be like spelling "hallepehnyo" for the Spanish word "jalapeño". Obvious downfalls to Hangul phonetization include a dangerous amount of homonyms. For example, "성" could mean anything from castle (城), gender (性) to last name (姓). Thankfully, as Hanja is still used sparingly in modern newspapers and moderately in some formal documents, it thus maintains a modest-sized Hanja-literate population. When a word in Hangul needs to be clarified, the original Hanja is used for clarification. This brings up the issue of who learns real Hanja and when.
Native speakers of Korean are ideally fluent (if not just pleasantly exposed) to 1800 different Hanja throughout public school. However, seeing as how Hanja is left out of the dreaded 수능, I imagine the pressure to learn Hanja diligently is quite low. I also imagine the actual number of instantly recognizable characters is actually quite a lot smaller; probably closer to a few hundred if I were to pull a number out of nowhere. It's much more likely that the native speaker of Korean knows the Korean spelling and definition of most major Hanja characters but does not know the proper Hanja spelling. I would also presume that many high frequency words that have both a Korean and Hanja base are also well known such as 대 (大), 중 (中), 수 (水), 인 (人), etc.
So why do there exist foreign history buffs who possess a higher understanding of Hanmoon when compared to an average native speaker? What's the point? Two reasons. First, old books (고서) and documents are likely to be written in Chinese, Japanese or Hanja depending the source and time period. Hangul is really not going to do you much good unless it has already be translated into Korean. Second, modern Korean is evolving away from its old roots and adopting an increasing amount of native and loan words. An estimated breakdown of Korean vocabulary in modern use is about 35% native Korean words (e.g. 길, 가죽), 60% Sino-Korean words (e.g. 신문, 약속) and about 5% loan words (e.g. 아르바이트, 택시). Therefore, knowing Hanja is clearly not a necessity but certainly gives one a leg up.
Advantages to knowing Hanja roots? Learning new Korean vocabulary is much easier. It's safe to say that knowing a hundred or so common Hanja roots will make picking up Korean a lot quicker. Disadvantages? Hanja is not always the socially acceptable word. It's not as if Hanja words are inherently dirty it's just that some words might be more easily understood in native Korean. Saying 오른 쪽 for "turn right" will probably be a bit more clear than saying "우회전". Unfortunately, due to the increasing influence of bad Konglish, the more common word instead might be actually be a Konglish word instead. Boo on that.
I leave you with this attempt at a summary in order to inspire those who have put off learning Hanja. Sure it's a little embarrassing to start relearning to write numbers again (just when you finally felt comfortable with the two sets of numbers in Korean) but a little goes a long way. If you're interested in learning Hanja, I'd recommend Useful Chinese Characters for Learners of Korean or the entry over at the Korean Wiki Project. Also, check out this creative Hanja advertising ploy.
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