While I think it is generally considered important to learn Hangul (한글) when learning Korean, is there a point in the learning process where learning hanja (Chinese characters) may also be important.

For me, I began to learn 한자 when I was working with Korean genealogical records (족보). For that part of my work, you essentially had to know 한자. But most Korean learners are not trying to read 200 year old records.

Is there a reason for Korean learners to learn 한자, especially those just wishing to be conversational in Korean?

  • 2
    Ah, in that case one could still say it's opinionated, but in private beta the rules aren't that strict. My initial point now fails though, so I'll retract my vote. I may even have a partial answer for you. – Mast Jun 21 '16 at 19:18

Hanja certainly isn't necessary, but it can be helpful. Many Koreans say they don't know any/many Hanja - they may have learned them in school, but they've forgotten most of them since. Certain generations didn't even have to learn them, and North Koreans don't learn them at all. So it is certainly possible to get by without learning any Hanja.

However, it can be useful to learn Hanja.

  1. There are a few Hanja that are used "symbolically/ideographically"; you will see these in signs, posters, menus, newspapers, etc. I think any Korean who can read will know these, even if they say they don't know Hanja. These include: 大, 中, 小 (large, medium, small) on menus etc. 月, 日 for month and day Although newspapers have mostly abandoned Hanja, there are some used still: countries (韓, 中, 日, 美, a few others), parties (與 - party in power; 野: opposition party), etc.

  2. Reading dictionaries. It can be much faster to choose the right definition if you know Hanja. This isn't such a big thing as a beginner, but for advanced learners, it helps, especially if you start using a Korean-Korean dictionary. There are so many homonyms in Korean, especially with 한자어. For example, there are 6 separate items for 진정 in my Korean-English dictionary; there are 15 in my 표준국어대사전.

  3. It can be beneficial for learning vocabulary. When you've learned a fair number of Hanja, you often find when you encounter a new word that you can guess it's meaning. Of course, it is possible to just learn the sounds of Hanja characters with their meanings, but I think it's much easier to remember different meanings when you can visualize the characters. It's certainly beneficial for visual learners, and for tactile learners, the process of writing the Hanja by hand can be beneficial for learning.

  4. Certain academic fields still use 한자 a lot in their technical documents - textbooks, academic papers, etc. I've only seen it in linguistics books, but it may be used in others too.


I find learning 한자 is not necessarily useful on its own, but knowing 한자어 (not the characters but the meanings behind syllables) really helps me be able to figure out words I've never seen before.

For example, lets say you know the words 교실(classroom) and 화장실 (bathroom) You might be able to decipher that 교, is probably something to do with education because we know (학교), which leave us with 실, which we can guess is room.

Now, lets say you see the word: 사무실, while not knowing what 사무 is, you could guess its some kind of room based on just the 한자어. (사무실=office, ie. work room)

*example stolen from this video from Jeremy (Motivate Korean)


I do not know about the importance of Hanja in general Korean, but it no longer has a place in North Korean.

Kim Il-sung considered Hanja unwanted for two reasons:

  • It's too complex.

Part of the illiteracy of the Chinese is blamed on the complexity of their characters. This was deemed unwanted for Korean.

  • It's an artefact of Japanese occupation.

While I don't know the details of how Japanese has influenced Korean, it's influence must have been big. Hanja was considered a part of this. Everything Japanese was considered unwelcome in North Korea after the revolution.

I've often heard the comparison that Hanja is to modern Korean like Greek is to modern English: if you're interested in the roots of words, it's good to be acquainted with. Afar from that, I have not needed it while learning Korean. There is a need for Hanja when reading older manuscripts like you indicated, but I have not found any reason why one would still learn it now otherwise. I suspect this is due to cultural changes over time.

  • 1
    I read a book about Korean history a few years ago. It clearly stated that Hanja came from China. They predated both the 16th-century Japanese invasion and the 20th-century occupation. – Tsundoku Oct 4 '16 at 18:23

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.