Since my last post, I’ve received several requests to share my Hanja learning tips, so ladies and gentlemen – here they come!
If you’re learning Korean you probably know that 60-70 percent of all Korean words have roots in Chinese characters called Hanja in Korean. That means that although they are written in Hangeul they can also be written using Chinese characters. So what? Since no one really uses Chinese characters in Korea anymore, do you really have to learn? Yes! For the simple reason that it will make everything sooo much easier for you in the long run. Think of it as short term pain – long term gain!
Way back before King Sejong the Great introduced the brilliant writing system Hangeul to the Korean people (and actually for several centuries after that), Korean script relied on Chinese characters. Even with the introduction of Hangeul, Chinese characters were common until a few decades ago. Today, mostly some newspapers and academic texts actively use Hanja, but a few characters are used in marketing, and are thus seen all over Korea like the characters for small, medium, and large, which are 小, 中, and 大 respectively. You may see these on several menus indicating portion size in a restaurant or café. Moreover, the character for “without”, 無 is often used to signal that products or items are without a list of certain (usually unwanted) ingredients.
Okay, I hear you. But why should I bother learning if Hanja isn’t really used anymore?
This is a valid question. Why bother learning the intricate script of Chinese characters when it’s not really used in the written language anymore? Because it will give you a newfound superpower, where you will easily be able to deduct the meaning of unknown words without having to consult a dictionary. I have honed this power for several years and always enjoy it when I correctly guess the meaning of unknown words. This is also especially handy if you’re preparing for the higher levels of TOPIK that will inevitably require a lot of specialized vocabulary, which is almost exclusively Hanja words. I recently read the word 하체 and did not immediately recognize it. However, I did a quick mental googling and my Hanja vocabulary instantly suggested to me that since 하 means lower or under, and 체 can mean body (as in 신체) the word must mean lower body. It did! So look at it this way, Batman has the batmobile, Thor has his hammer, and you – the Korean learner – know Hanja! It also means that you’ll be able to understand lame jokes like this:
You convinced me – now, how do I study Hanja?
This depends on your level. For beginners I highly recommend both TTMIK’s Your First Hanja Guide and Darakwons Useful Chinese Characters for Learners of Korean. They both introduce basic to intermediate characters that appear in words you might already know. If, as a beginner, you don’t feel like spending a lot of money right away, I also found this website really helpful.
For more advanced learners who are ready to take things to the next level, I’m a big fan of 한자를 알면 세계가 좁다.
As to how you should study, we all learn in different ways, but here’s what I do. For the basic characters, I did practice writing them out by hand as I felt it helped me to remember them. However, as my knowledge of Hanja expanded, I found this step less necessary as you will discover that the characters are largely made of of components called radicals. Knowing radicals will help you to see a character as one or more pictures that combined convey a certain meaning and sound. Here’s an example: Let’s take the character for tree – 木 – it actually looks like a tree with branches. Then how about the word for root or origin? 本 – the root of the tree. Then what about resting? 休 a person leaning against a tree. The more Hanja you know, the easier it gets.
Currently I’m finishing up the 한자를 알면 세계가 좁다 book. I read about a chapter a week, as I feel that reading more will just make me forget what I read. While I read, I underline all the new Hanja words and then after finishing the chapter, I add them to my Memrise deck with their Korean pronunciation. I’ve been working on the deck for a year and currently have around 1100 words. Then the next day, I’ll start reviewing the words in Memrise, which will then allow me to review them with spaced repetition. The same applies if you prefer to use Anki instead of Memrise.
I hardly ever write out Chinese characters by hand anymore. However, occasionally I practice writing them on my computer just to remind myself of their shape and meaning.
So, there you have it. No reason not to get started immediately. I usually recommend my Korean students here in Denmark to start learning Hanja after about a year, but you can certainly start sooner. And remember, when you know Hanja, learning Japanese or even Chinese will be SO. MUCH. EASIER.
Happy studying and feel free to ask in the comments if you have any questions.
I’ll leave you with these two videos from TTMIK. Enjoy!