In my interactions with other Korean learners, I’ve frequently heard complaints that Chinese characters (which for the record do not appear often in written Korean) are hard. Using this as an excuse, many people avoid familiarizing themselves with these characters. In my opinion this is probably one of the biggest mistakes you can make as a Korean learner, only surpassed by refusing to learn Hangeul – the Korean script.
Though phonetically distant from modern-day Chinese, Korean remains deeply rooted in Chinese vocabulary. An estimated 60-70% of Korean words are Hanja-words, meaning that they can be written with Chinese characters.
Since these words, however, are written in Korean script, you may wonder “why bother learning Chinese characters?” “I’m already struggling as it is.” You should totally learn at least a couple of hundred Chinese characters, because it will make your life so much easier in countless ways. Here are a few:
- You’ll quickly be able to derive the meaning of words you don’t know simply because you can decompose that word into compounds that are represented by a Chinese character. For example, let’s say you don’t know the word 전화 (電話 in Hanja) but you do know the words 전기 and 대화 (electricity and conversation, respectively). Being able to decompose the 전 and the 화 into meanings of electric and conversation, you can soon guess that전화 means telephone.
- You will be able to quickly grasp the meaning of Korean newspaper headlines which very often use Chinese characters like 美, 日, 中, 野, 與, 前, 後, 靑. They are used as abbreviations for America, Japan, China, the opposition, the ruling party, previous, following, and the Blue House, respectively. They are pronounced as 미, 일, 중, 야, 여, 전, 후, and 청.
- You will be able to read signs and labels in Korean much faster. A frequently used character is 無 (무) meaning – ‘non’ as in non-fat, non-artificial, etc.
- You’ll realize that a whole new world opens up when you start seeing the Chinese characters as building blocks for expanding your Korean vocabulary.
- You’ll be able to make sense of some signs in Chinese and Japanese since you can derive the meaning of the character. Not really necessary for a Korean learner, but fun nonetheless.
- You’ll have a strong advantage when later on acquiring more specialized vocabulary within fields of law, social studies, medicine, and science, since such words are largely based on Chinese characters.
- You’ll have a lot of fun unlocking the mystery that Chinese characters can represent to a Westerner.
- You’ll find that learning just one or two new characters a day will quickly compound, and the more characters you know, the easier it will be to retain newly learned vocabulary.
- Finally, you might find that practicing writing the Chinese characters can almost be a substitute for meditation. I personally like to practice writing in a pretty hardback notebook with brush-style pens. It’s almost like writing calligraphy. Fun fact, calligraphy in Korean is called 서예 which is written as 書藝 in Chinese characters. The first one means ‘writing’ and the second means ‘art’. How beautifully logical everything seems when you know Hanja.
I’m currently reviewing and learning new characters every day while I’m on vacation in Denmark. This morning I was taking a walk along the main shopping street, when I noticed a store with the character 物 on their shop sign. I’ve walked past it several times in the past, but today was the first time that I caught myself actually reading it. It roughly translates to ‘thing’ or ‘stuff’. I couldn’t help smiling at this small victory.
If you’re new at this I recommend starting out with this free online Hanja guide. It’s tremendously useful and well-written. I also preach the good word of the “Useful Chinese characters for learners of Korean”. Happy studying!