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Koreans cant read Chinese characters

March 13th, 2007 . by Matt

Here is a follow up article to Koreans not being able to write Chinese characters.

Professor Lee Myung-Hak of the Dept. of Korean Literature in Classical Chinese at Sungkyunkwan University tested the literacy level in Chinese characters of 384 freshmen, and 78 of them couldn’t even write their own names. That’s 20 percent. Moreover, 77 percent of them couldn’t write their mother’s name in Chinese characters, while 83 percent couldn’t write their father’s name. Two out of 10 college freshmen cannot write their own names, while eight out of ten cannot write their parents’ names. The situation must be similar at other universities. It’s not even surprising that only 7 percent of them were able to read the word “ambition,” 4 percent could read “honor,” while only 1 percent could read “compromise.” The situation was no different when it came to writing in Chinese characters, with 71 percent unable to write “new student,” 96 percent unable to write “economy” and 98 percent unable to write “encyclopedia.” Some wrote “bamboo mat” instead of “university.”

Our students do not learn Chinese characters while in school. They have almost completely disappeared from literature textbooks. Only a few schools still teach Chinese characters and usually due to the passion of the school principals. High school students can take Chinese characters as an elective course in their junior or senior year, but hardly any of them sign up for it in scholastic aptitude tests. Existing verbal aptitude tests do not contain questions involving Chinese characters.

Seventy percent of Korean words including most conceptual and abstract nouns are made of Chinese characters. Terminology used in humanities, social studies and natural science are mostly Chinese characters. It is difficult to understand the meaning of words by pronunciation alone, without learning about the meanings of the Chinese characters that represent them. Words such as “recurrence”, “repatriation” and “homing” contain the Chinese character that stands for “return.” Without knowing that character, you must memorize each of those words separately by sound.

Some commenters objected to the previous post saying that even if they could not write, they could still read. This article should be pretty clear evidence that they are not able to read, either.

63 Responses to “Koreans cant read Chinese characters”

  1. comment number 1 by: Ken

    A professor of Seoul Univ is warning that Hangul only education is downgrading culture level and Chinese character education should be back as follows.

  2. comment number 2 by: T_K

    Sorry, my Japanese reading skill is dismal. Did the professor explain how exactly the culture level is being degraded?

  3. comment number 3 by: kteen

    So what?
    It’s the same thing as criticizing people who speak English for not knowing Latin(I know most people don’t).

  4. comment number 4 by: kteen

    And talking about ‘vulgar language’, English was the ‘commoner’s language’ in Britain too.

  5. comment number 5 by: Ken


    He expressed that there would be no more country’s advancement and Korea could not avoid the deterioration of culture quality if Korea is stick to Hangul only education.
    He is not digitizing though the culture quality cannot be digitized.
    If you want the translation of all sentences, please use any translation software.

  6. comment number 6 by: tocchin

    kteen, Latin is a dead language. Chinese is
    still used by more than one billion people.

  7. comment number 7 by: kteen

    The chinese they’re talking about is ‘chinsese characters’, not the ‘chinese language’
    learning chinese characters might help one learn the Korean language better(as learning latin might help someone learn english better), but i do not think it is obligatory for our students to go around learning thousands of simply-useless-and-inefficient chinese characters.

  8. comment number 8 by: HanComplex

    but i do not think it is obligatory for our students to go around learning thousands of simply-useless-and-inefficient chinese characters.

    The professor from Seoul University disagrees with you, citing several cultural reasons. So aside from your opinion that Chinese characters are “useless and inefficient” can you provide more compelling reasons why we should buy your argument rather than that of a university professor?

  9. comment number 9 by: Ken

    I do not care whether the education by the language made for low scholarship people reproduce low scholarship people.
    Presenting contradictory proof is just laughed.
    Simply the Japanese would not like to be bothered with Korean nuisance by the illiteracy of Chinese character.
    Chinese is not to Hangul what Latin is to English.
    Some English phonetic words are distinguished with the spelling such as ‘pair’ and ‘pear’.
    On the contrary, by far more almost same pronuciation Chinese words are spelled same in Hangul which is said to stand for the shape of mouth for each sound.
    This is disturbing conplicated thinking like social science.

  10. comment number 10 by: lhjk

    If we are talking about efficiensy of chinese characters in science/academic fields, I would have to agree that Chinese characters are important. After all, most of the terms used in Korea are originated from the chinese words, and knowing the meaning of the characters will help our understanding of the terms, ideas or whatever. However please understand that for most of the Koreans, university is no longer a place for academic studies(sadly). Wheter it be a law school or medical school or any other majors in Korean university, students are no longer interested in furthereing their knowledge in the respected fields. It’s been long since university has become a place for future job searching and no more. Most of the students no longer want to study, or should I say search for something that’s new, and will help improve our society. All they are looking forward to is next MT, date, or job searching which start in fourth, or third year. This probably is the reason for low literacy rate of Chinese character, English or any other language related with academic studies of the schools.
    I will not comment on Han-gul or cultural aspects of Chinese characters, since being a Korean, I figure most of my arguements will surly be biased. I recently figured out that most of my understanding of my own countrymen and our surroundings are indeed biased and even distorted. I guess it cant be helped growing in a country where they show anything thats favorable to them and hiding most that are unfavorable. You know now that I come to think of it, in a history textbook we used when I was 3rd grade in junior high, there were some gruesome pictures like a Japanese soldier holding a head of a Korean man(beheaded). Studying under such circumstances it’s really hard to see the world as it is, and admit our fault to others(especially Japanese). It was not just the year, but ever since elementary, weve been seeing such picture, hearing such stories, been watching TV shows/news telling how bad Japanese or some other countries are. I don’t know what’s the problem in the country.

  11. comment number 11 by: egg

    Korean people will decide what is best for themselves, so they might say “Mind your business”. But I wonder how they are going to study history. As history was recorded in chinese chracters, those who can’t read it won`t be able to study the historical documents by themslves. They can only believe what a specialist says. For ordinally citizens(if they can`t fully understand chinese characters as claimed here) it must be a rather tough situation when they try to have some debates about history against those who can read chinese characters.

  12. comment number 12 by: Ken

    Dear Ihjk,

    You are looking at Korea ovjectively as Korean, aren’t you?
    I am interested in the textbook of history.
    Could you upload them after scanning if they are the photographs which were taken, not the pictures which were drawn?

  13. comment number 13 by: GarlicBreath

    You know now that I come to think of it, in a history textbook we used when I was 3rd grade in junior high, there were some gruesome pictures like a Japanese soldier holding a head of a Korean man(beheaded).

    Hi IHJK, please send a picture of the textbook. It is my hope that Japan and Korea should be closer and can both become better nations by exposing the truth about each other.