Korean Grammar by way of Characters

[The following is a guest post. Yi Chonsang lives in Seoul where he works as an anonymous grunt for a multinational.]

I spend most of my time at work. I would love to enroll in a language program but it’s just not an option with my schedule. Meanwhile a friend here in Seoul is studying Korean full time, and he’s gotten pretty good at it. Now he’s looking to learn hanja, the Korean name for Chinese characters. He recently showed me the book he’s using for this, Learning Hanja the Fun Way.

He said it has been very useful so far for learning hanja. It must be because he’s going through it fairly quickly. I had a different idea. I thought it would be a good way for a Mandarin speaker to learn Korean grammar by going through the book in reverse. Since I studied Chinese before, that’s exactly what I’m now trying to do.

The book is divided into lessons, each composed of a list of vocabulary words followed by a reading comprehension paragraph in Korean and English. The words from the vocabulary show up in the reading as hanja (漢字 hànzì); the list of hanja are given with hangul (the native Korean writing system), a definition, and a little picture to show you what it’s supposed to be representing. This is like what you find in books like Remembering the Kanji/Hanzi.

In a text that is written in pure hangul, a new student might have a problem separating grammar markers and vocabulary. At least for me, coming out of my comfort zone with Chinese, this has sometimes been a problem. But vocabulary written with hanja could allow the student to avoid that problem by skipping over a large number of words that aren’t immediately necessary to learn. For example Korean is 한국어 (hangugeo) or 韓國語. Instead you could read it as “hánguóyǔ” while studying. You’d need to learn the hangugeo pronunciation eventually, obviously, but this way not yet. Chosun Ilbo, one of the major newspapers, is 조선일보 (joseonilbo) or 朝鮮日報. If your focus is grammar, then converting the nouns which have come from Chinese languages into hanja should be helpful.

As another example, in hangul we might see this:

교육은 “백년의 대계”라고 합니다. 그만큼 교육은 중요합니다.
gyoyugeun “baengnyeonui daegye”rago hamnida. geumankeum gyoyugeun jungyohamnida.

In this book, it’s printed instead as this:

教育은 “百年의 大計”라고 합니다. 그만큼 教育은 重要합니다.

은 is the topic marker. 의 marks possession very much like 的 in Mandarin. 합니다 is one form of the verb “to be” and falls at the end of the sentence. These are all things one would learn in the very first semester of Korean. Assuming you already knew the hanja for 教育, 百年 and 大計, which anyone who spoke Mandarin would, you could easily guess the purpose of the three segments of hangul from their positions in the sentence. In English the book translates this as “Education is called a ‘hundred year grand plan.'”

Below is the whole paragraph that the sentence above was taken from. See what you can make out.

教育은 “百年의 大計”라고 합니다. 그만큼 教育은 重要합니다. 第一 어겨운 試驗은 大學入學試驗입니다. 이 試驗을 “修能(大學修學能力試驗)”이라고 부릅니다. 大學校에 入學하려면. 修能點數가 아주 重要합니다. 大入에 失敗한 學生들은再修합니다. 再修生들은 主로 學院에서 工夫합니다. 國立大는 私立大보다 學費가 쌉니다. 夜間大學校이나 專門大學도 있습니다. 英文學, 國文學, 化學, 生物學, 物理學, 工學 等 여러 자지 專攻이 있습니다. 卒業 前에, 自己專攻에 관한 論文을 發表합니다. 大學을 卒業하면 學士學位를 받습니다. 大卒者들은 職業을 求해서 就職하거나 大學院에 進學합니다. 그리고 碩士나 博士學位를 받은 後, 教授님이 되기도 합니다.

If you are interested, you can find a hangul to romaja conversion tool here and one for characters to pinyin here.

6 responses to “Korean Grammar by way of Characters”

  1. Karan says:

    Is there a Hangul to Hanja (like your text above) conversion tool anywhere?

  2. Yi Chonsang says:

    I’m not sure there is. I looked and didn’t find anything. In newspapers and mass media hanja is used to clear up ambiguity when context isn’t enough. I guess there must be one somewhere. I just don’t know where.

  3. There are tons of hits on Google for how to do it in MS Office, OpenOffice etc, but there doesn’t seem to be any sort of adsotrans pages. It’s kinda crazy though because most dictionary apps have hangul data included. Pleco and Wiktionary both do, for example. I can’t imagine it’d be that hard to get a script going. Though there would be some issues that might not be clear from context as Korean gyo 교 can be characters corresponding to xiao, qiao or jiao in Mandarin. 交,教,校,桥 etc. But who knows. Maybe context would be enough.

  4. Georg says:

    There should be more dedicated textbooks for your method. How would a Chinese learn Korean?

  5. Yi Chonsang says:

    They exist. All the big book stores have big sections for learning Korean with books in Chinese or Japanese. Those are written for native Chinese speakers. Those books teach you Korean from step one. This is different. This way bypasses all that. It’s like a crash course in grammar because you see it used but you don’t worry about vocabulary.

    It’s not the way to learn it. It’s just a different way. Maybe a faster way.

  6. Zrv says:

    The method you are experimenting with here is a time-tested way that students and scholars in Sinology have used for acquiring Japanese reading ability. The idea is to assume that, more or less, Japanese noun and verb roots written in kanji will be comprehensible to someone with strong Chinese reading skills. So you don’t worry about learning most vocabulary or Japanese pronunciations. Instead, you learn basic grammar (verbal suffixes, case-marking particles, subordination, etc.) and the lexical glue that binds sentences together in academic articles (a limited set of conjunctions, adverbs, set phrases, and the like). Courses in this technique are sometimes still taught in the US under such titles as “Japanese reading for Sinologists”. You can’t learn spoken Japanese this way, and you can’t really learn to read fiction, but for getting at academic articles in Japanese it’s a very effective shortcut.

    The problem with written Korean, of course, is that hanja are so seldom used nowadays. It’s nearly impossible to find texts in which all the Sino-Korean elements are written in characters. (This was not always the case. Pick up a copy of Chosun Ilbo from the 1950s and there’s more Chinese on the page than Hangeul.)

    If I understand Mr. Yi’s goal here, it’s not simply to acquire reading ability of the type I described above. It’s to try to separate out the grammar learning from the vocabulary learning, so that learning advanced grammar needn’t depend on having already acquired a lot of vocabulary. Then the vocabulary can be filled in later. It’s an intriguing idea, and I’ll be curious to see how updates on progress.

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