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[Classical] Chinese as a Prelude to Korean

Dear Professor Arguelles,

Of all the discussions about Korean I have followed over the years on the old How To Learn Any Language Forum, as well as its reincarnation as the Language Learners’ Forum, the most contentious and heated have always centered on the usefulness of 한자.

Videos such as Korean Patch’s (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1H5QTZIC-QI) “Your Teacher is WRONG about Hanja” demonstrate that while most speakers know the most extremely common handful, overwhelmingly they regard them as unnecessary. The aforementioned forum discussions tend to skew in this direction as well: in your recent library tour video for your East Asian section, your passing comment that you need to know the Chinese characters for Korean even briefly reignited this debate with some dismissing this as exaggeration, akin to requiring a student of English to study Latin and Greek, and others defending the position by stressing the value, from their own experience, of etymological knowledge in illuminating the Sino-Korean lexicon.

As someone who has only ever dabbled in both the Korean and Chinese languages, it is difficult for me to know where to stand on this issue. Certainly I trust your own experience in this matter, and I am reminded of what you once wrote of 한자, namely that, “without them, you cannot get beyond “intermediate” in the language, and with them you could get to intermediate much more swiftly”
Thus, with an eye specifically towards long-term planning, I am considering pre-emptively attacking the 한자 directly through the preliminary study of Chinese.

My brief bursts of study with Chinese over the years have made clear to me that the challenge with the written language has less to do with knowledge of individual characters (though still no trivial task) and more to do with learning the much greater number of derivable character compounds from the several-thousand logograms that native Chinese learn through the course of their schooling. In light of this, I have always been particularly enamored of a set of Chinese readers developed by the late sinologist Dr. John DeFrancis who, in his essay “Why Johnny Can’t Read Chinese”, emphasizes the need to learn character compounds, not merely isolated characters, when attempting to develop literacy in the language.

Recognition of this fact stands in stark contrast to most other resources I have found for Chinese, and certainly everything I have come across for Korean, which have a tendency to put the focus on isolated characters, while lacking the sheer volume of repetition and reading practice needed to truly internalize the written language. Francis Y. T. Park’s volume III of “Speaking Korean” is the best I have found, but even this resource, as useful as it is, cannot match the extensive reading practice and repetition that DeFrancis provides.

My choice to use the DeFrancis Readers to develop a foundation in Chinese characters thus hinges on precisely this emphatic use of character compounds, which make up the majority of both modern Chinese and Sino-Korean vocabulary. The Beginning, Intermediate and Advanced volumes teach a combined total of 1200 traditional characters – still less than the 1800 minimum designated by the South Korean Ministry of Education – but also from them a derived total of more than 6000 compounds. All of this taken together with hundreds and hundreds of pages of running text, entirely in Chinese, I consider this to be an exceptionally efficient way to develop a foundation in written Chinese.

My concern at this point has to do with the degree to which I would be swimming against the tide by taking this preparatory detour. Note again that I would be approaching my studies with specifically long-term considerations. Is the degree of overlap between modern written Chinese and Sino-Korean vocabulary sufficient to make this undertaking worthwhile? If yes, would a further study of Classical Chinese be warranted, which is to say, a kind of preludial immersion in East Asian etymology? If no, is there a more efficient, more direct, means of acquiring this knowledge?

I would be most appreciative to get your thoughts on this, whether you deem the plan appropriately preemptive, or misguidedly tortuous!

With best regards,

Christopher Stead

My reply:

Dear Christopher Stead,

Thank you for posing this interesting proposition regarding the learning of one language for the sake of learning another. As you know, I have written about sequences of learning languages that make more sense than others and I am happy to revisit such questions on an individual basis.

As to learning Chinese before learning Korean as a means a providing a base in the characters that will facilitate the learning of Korean: it could make cold sense to learn Chinese first, then Korean and/or Japanese as the flow of the considerable number of loan words is historically from Chinese and into these other two. However, I think the great majority of the etymologically Chinese words from characters that entered the Korean language did so centuries ago; therefore, it would make most sense to learn not modern Mandarin but rather Classical Chinese before learning other East Asian languages.

This all presupposes that you intend to learn many if not most of the East Asian languages, and that the order in which you learn them is a matter of relative indifference to you as long as you ultimately do learn them all. Unless both of these apply, then I would question your approach: to learn one [also very difficult] language just so that you can facilitate the learning of a second [also very difficult] language is not something that I would generally propose to most people. Yes, if the person has a more scholarly interest in the languages and does want to learn them all; no, if the person does not have such scholarly interest and really (just) wants to learn one, in this case, Korean: then learn Korean first.

If by character compounds you mean the stroke order build-up of the characters and the number of root characters there are, then I don’t know that that is unique to DeFrancis’ approach to teaching them. Learning those was the sine qua non of learning how to write the 漢字 with Bruce Grant’s A Guide To Korean Characters: Reading and Writing Hangul and Hanja (A Mini Dictionary of Characters for Modern Readers) (Hollym, 2000). Writing those out repeatedly into increasingly longer memory chains is what I did to learn not only these 1,800 but at least a thousand more at one point. If your main target is Korean and not Chinese, then you can use this directly rather than going round about through Chinese.

I have never understood why I cannot simply report my experience on this matter without it becoming the bone of contention you mention. I was into my 2nd or 3rd year of prolonged intensive immersion for the sake of really learning Korean. I had come to an intermediate plateau where I felt stuck for a long time. Nothing else helped me to overcome this, but as soon as I started writing out the 漢字, I immediately began to improve. I realized that I had been having trouble hearing, saying, and remembering words because the way they were sounded sounded, to my ears, nothing as if they should sound as they did, as do the words in many European languages. Learning to write out the 漢字 with Grant’s book meant learning the etymology of many Korean words. Suddenly, I understood why they meant what they meant, and so perceiving and processing them suddenly became much easier.

I would say that this alone brought me up to the lowest level of advanced learning. I was soon even able to coin words on my own during conversation by combining characters according to the patterns into combinations that sounded just like they should mean what I wanted them to mean, and when I then employed these in the conversation, I found that my partners understood what I meant to convey in the way that I meant to convey it. This enabled me to have complex and detailed conversations with native Korean scholars (professors, museum curators, monks, etc.) about literature, history, culture, philosophy, religion, etc., as well as to read scholarly texts on these topics that were written with large numbers of 漢字. Learners of Korean who do not engage in such conversations / read such books might have less need to do this.

Again, what I did was a version of Scriptorium, writing them and reading them aloud as I did so over and over again into increasingly long memory chains using Grant’s book. When you get to the stage where you can do this, apart from Park’s Volume III as a reader, you will be able to access ample other native material for this, intended for Korean schoolchildren, for example. There is no need to go through Chinese to use these.

Using this approach, not just to get off the intermediate plateau, but rather from the very beginning of Korean language studies would be, I think, by far the most efficient means of learning Korean for anyone of a scholarly bent. This is why I included them from lesson 1 of the Historical, Literary, and Cultural Approach to the Korean Language that I co-authored. In this fashion, you could just as easily learn Classical Chinese through Korean as vice versa, so again, there would be little advantage to learning Chinese as a prelude to Korean.

I hope this answers all of your questions?

With best wishes for your most successful studies,

Alexander Arguelles

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My name is Alexander Arguelles. I have pursued foreign languages and literatures with a passion all my life. My goal is to share the knowledge and experience I have gained with others who would like to do the same. Find out more →

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