Regular readers of my blog will know that I’m a strong advocate of learning basic Chinese characters (called Hanja in Korean) if you are serious about learning Korean. Not because you’ll necessarily need to be able to read them to get by in Korea, but because around 60-70% of all Korean words have a Hanja stem, meaning that the more you know about Hanja, the easier it will be to expand your Korean vocabulary and, more importantly, the easier it will be to guess the meaning of words you don’t know.

Ever since I learned that Talk To Me In Korean (TTMIK) were in the process of publishing a book on Hanja for Korean learners I’ve been wanting to get my hands on this book. Last Friday I finally succeeded. Since in live in Korea, I was waiting for the book to hit the major bookstores, but it has been available online for a few weeks. I headed to Kyobo Bookstore at Gwanghwamun on Friday after work, bought their last copy (whoa, that was lucky) and then finished it over the weekend. (I’ll leave it to my readers to decide whether that means that I’m a really fast reader or just have very little going on in my life at the moment, haha!)

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Really in love with the pretty cover! It’s written in collaboration with Kong and Park, who have previously published a similar volume for Chinese learners. 

The title of the book is “Your First Hanja Guide” with the Korean subtitle “한자를 알면 한국어가 쉬워진다” (if you know Hanja, Korean becomes easier). Since I’m a passionate student of Hanja, it’s not my first guide – rather my fifth, but I’ll gladly switch the word “first” with “best”, and it should be correct. This is seriously the book I wish I had two years ago. It’s organization, structure, logic, and explanations are just brilliant. In short, it manages to do exactly what I needed 4 other separate books for. It introduces a certain character, breaks down how it’s written, explains the underlying meaning of the different compounds of the character, introduces several Korean words, where the character appears, and finally presents three sample sentences in natural every-day Korean.

The book deals with 118 core characters that appear frequently in the Korean language. It moreover groups these characters into categories like Person, Body, Nature, etc.

Here are some pictures to better illustrate why this book is a must-have if you want to improve your Korean skills and learn more about the origin of the Korean words you already know.

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From the table of contents. Here you see how the characters are grouped into categories. This page shows characters related to “body”.

Here is an example of the structure using the character 家 (가) meaning house. If you live in Korea, you should be very familiar with this particular character as it appears in the logo of the 김家네 (Gimgane) franchise restaurants.

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First, the character is introduced and we learn what it looks like, how it sounds and what it means. Then the Breakdown provides a deeper understanding of why the character looks like it does by breaking it into smaller parts. This is very helpful for learning to recognize the character. Then the stroke order is demonstrated. I’d like to point out that you don’t necessarily need to learn how to write the characters, but I find it helpful to practice doing so, as it increases your familiarity with the character and makes it easier to remember it. (Bonus: practicing writing the characters is actually great fun.)

Then several words with the stem 家 in it are introduced. The beautiful part of this section is that every component of the compound word is explained in English. Many Korean learners know that 가족 means family. After all, it’s one of the first words most people learn. But fewer probably know that it’s a Hanja word composed of 家 가 meaning house, and 族 족 meaning people. House + people = family. Once you get familiar with this way of constructing words in Korean, you’ll soon be able to guess the meaning of other words because you can figure out the Hanja stem of the word. This is a tremendously helpful language hack for Korean learners who do not have an Asian language as their mother tongue.

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A helpful review section is included after each chapter.

After every few characters, a very helpful review section is presented. There are a draw and pair segment, a definition exercise and a series of words where the reader has to identify the common Chinese character. Then follows my favorite part – the Flow Chart. This breaks down the character and shows how it’s related to others. I had actually been making similar charts by hand when studying Hanja on my own with other resources, so I’m just so happy to see it organized for me in a way that’s much better than what I could have done myself. It gives a great overview and makes Chinese characters seem much less overwhelming.

In the back of the more than 350 pages long book, there’s a list of all the words introduced in the book, their English translations, and the page number. This makes for an easy way to look up words as well.

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I’m a big fan of this neat index as well.

Even though I already know Hanja quite well, and didn’t learn many new things from the book, it did solidify what I already knew in a new, fun and interesting manner. This is without a doubt THE best resource for any Korean learners from upper-beginner level and up, who want to boost their knowledge of Korean and Korean vocabulary and deepen their understanding of the Korean language. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

If this review has piqued your interest, you can learn more about the book (and TTMIK) here:

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