The Ministry of Education’s decision to use both Hangeul and Hanja(Chinese character) for elementary school textbooks has been very controversial for years. The recently announced Ministry’s policy is to use roughly 300 Hanja words with its meaning and pronunciation in textbooks for 5th and 6th grades excluding Korean language textbook. It also explained , that the Hanja words will be middle school level and those Hanja will not be on the exam. Nonetheless, the heated controversy surrounding this policy is becoming more intense.
This dispute has quite a long history. From 1948 to 1965, under the law on exclusive use of Hangeul, Hanja could be shown in parenthesis in textbooks for 4 to 6 graders. In 1970, President Park Chung-hee prohibited using Hanja in textbooks, but after public outcry, his Hangeul exclusivity initiative backtracked with using Hanja in middle and high school Korean textbooks in 1972. The ban on Hanja education in elementary schools still remained. In a social atmosphere that refrains from using Hanja, Korean newspapers and magazines have gradually begun to exclude Hanja. However, since the late 1990s, the demand for the resurgence of Hanja education has increased.
In the enthusiasm of Hanja education, Hanja was selected as a subject for CSAT in 2004. In 2009, it was included as one of the creative experiential activities in elementary school. From 2009 to 2013, there were several attempts to revive Hanja education as a regular elementary school subject but most of them failed. After all, in 2013, Kim Chae-chun, Secretary to the President for Education, helped the proposal of using Hanja in elementary school textbooks to be considered by the Presidential Transition Committee. This is thought to be the cornerstone for the Ministry of Education’s recent announcement of its mulling of using Hanja with Hangeul in elementary school textbooks in 2014.
People who advocate entering Hanja in parenthesis say that Hanja can be helpful in enlarging one’s vocabulary as 70 percent of Korean vocabularies are made up of Hanja. In addition, advocates claim that students can develop their reading comprehension with Hanja. For example, the Korean word Sam-yeon-pae can both mean “to lose three times in a row” or “to win three times in a row.” Advocates explained that if we use Hanja with Hangeul students can get the meaning precisely.
However, opponents do not agree with them. Opponents simply say that students do not need Hanja in their textbooks regardless of whether the word is difficult or not. It is because if it is difficult, there will be a box on the side of the page to provide short explanation of the word and if it is not, students do not need Hanja with it. In addition, opponents claim that the use of Hanja with Hangeul might lead to a surge of private education. They say many parents find it effective to learn Hanja in the textbooks in advance.
On December 30th last year, the ministry pronounced on 370 Hanja words of which 300 words are going to be used in elementary textbooks. The 300 words were to be announced in last January but the ministry said it is worried that it might bring another private education fever. Until now, the 300-word-list has not been released. On the very same day, 54 Hangeul and education-related organizations submitted a statement that says entering Hanja in parenthesis violates the framework on Korean language. As the government is spurring the policy, the confrontation between the two sides never seem to end.
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