'Hanja' education in elementary schools stirs dispute

The South Korean Education Ministry's year-long effort to reintroduce use of Chinese characters ― or Hanja ― in primary education was put on hold earlier this month, but the controversy lingers as its opponents demand the ministry abandon the policy for good.

Last week, Headquarters for Movement Against Hanja in Elementary School Textbooks held a press conference in Jongno, central Seoul, saying it would conduct a campaign demanding the resignation of Education Minster Hwang Woo-yea if he does not discard the policy. The group is a collaboration of 54 education-related bodies, parents' groups and advocates of Hangeul, the Korean writing system.

Over 400 education professors across the country also released a statement on Sept. 9 to bash the government's move, while a survey conducted by the Korea Teachers and Education Workers' Union showed that 78 per cent of elementary school students opposed it.

The ministry's policy is centred on using both Hangeul and Hanja for elementary school textbooks, which goes hand-in-hand with teaching the Chinese characters for elementary school students. In Korea, Hanja teaching has been restricted as an optional course for middle and high school students since the 1970s.

But the ministry announced last year that it is mulling use of Hanja in elementary schools, a year after President Park Geun-hye's public address stressing the need to enhance Hanja education.

Key issues surrounding the policy are if learning Hanja can actually help students and whether or not implementing Hanja education will add to students' academic stress.

Park Yong-gyu, the head of the executive committee at the HMAHES, said reinstating Hanja use is an "outdated" concept. He raised concerns that the additional learning could make life painful for elementary school students, who already face a heavy academic burden.

"The government implemented English classes at elementary schools a few years back, and now students are suffering the consequences," he said.

Korea introduced English classes for elementary school students in the mid-1990s. Two decades later, the Park administration has rolled out policies to reign in what the president has described as "excessive English education."

Park of HMAHES pointed out that effects of the Hanja use will have rippling effects.

"Imagine what would happen if they started using Hanja around third grade? It won't affect just older students; first, second graders, even kindergarten students will be learning Hanja as part of 'advanced learning,'" he said.

"Advanced learning" refers to students studying material for older students. Although Korea recently passed a bill banning it, it does not apply to private education institutes.

But proponents of Hanja use say that concerns about a surge in private education is exaggerated.

"A 'moderate' use of Hanja will not add significant stress to students. Let's say students in grades 4-6 would learn about a couple of characters a week, and they are not tested on their learning. Would that be burdensome?" said Kim Dong-seok, the spokesman for the Korea Federation of Teachers' Association.

Kim added that there are already significant demands among Koreans for Hanja education.

"Our statistics show that over half of those taking Hanja certification tests are elementary school students. This means there is a demand for Hanja education among parents," said Kim.

Jin Tae-ha, the chairman of the board at the Korean Association of Hanja Education Promotion, wrote in his recent column that use of Hanja is deeply rooted in Korean language.

"Over 90 per cent of academic books in colleges across the country use both Korean and Chinese characters. Over 70 per cent of Korean words use Hanja. Exclusive use of Hangeul for nearly half a century has sparked many problems, which can be addressed with the ministry's policy," he wrote.

While both sides agree that words composed of Hanja account for a large portion of Korean vocabulary, opponents point out that the majority of these words are spelled out in Hangeul in everyday use.

"Take for example the word 'sa-gi (fraud)' in Korea. Everyone knows what that means. They don't have to know how to write it in Chinese characters," Park of HMAHES said. "If it's not broken, why fix it?"

Park added that the only ones gaining from the new policy would be organisations that run Hanja certification tests. He pointed out that the privately run Korean Association of Hanja Education Promotion ― one of the most outspoken proponents of the policy ― is one of the cosponsors of the annual Hanja tests, raising suspicion over the motive behind the organisation's consistent calls for Hanja education.

The group said the sponsorship had nothing to do with financial gains, and that it was purely for the promotion of Hanja education.

Taking notice of the fierce controversy, the Education Ministry recently postponed the decision on Hanja use for primary education and vowed to conduct further research on the policy. The ministry was originally to announce its decision on the implementation Wednesday, as part of this year's sweeping revision of the education curriculum.

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