Thursday, February 15, 2007

Hanja on the subway

I've noticed something about studying Chinese characters in Korea.

When I study Korean or just read something in Korean on the subway, other passengers pay me no attention. Two or three times somebody's asked me about how my Korean was coming along, but honestly, they could well have just been practicing their English on the foreigner and my reading material was just the obvious topic of conversation. In other words, Koreans don't seem to care much.

But lately I've been spending a lot of time learning Chinese characters (hanja) and suddenly, random Koreans on the subway are taking an interest in what I'm reading. Unlike the Japanese, Koreans don't use Chinese characters much in everyday writing - it's generally used in the occasional newspaper headline, store sign, and any writing that tries to look extra-fancy. But it's considered essential knowledge if you want to be considered literate at a high level in Korean, and most educated Koreans can read hundreds of characters (though they tend to be pretty terrible at writing them). I find that studying them is an excellent way to pick up Korean vocabulary - plus I'm moving to Taiwan in a few weeks, and learning hanja will make the task of learning the traditional characters in use down there far easier.

Random Koreans don't care much when I'm reading/studying Korean written in plain old hangeul, but when I'm studying hanja suddenly they're interested. Last week I had four middle school students hovering over me and cheering me on as I practiced a couple dozen characters on Subway Line 5. A few days ago a guy sitting next to me asked in Korean, Can you read that?? I said, A little. The guy said in Korean, I don't know all of those... He got up for his stop and said laughing in English, "You're crazy..."

Well, yeah.

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