I have been frequently asked by those that are learning Korean, “Should I learn Hanja?” Anyone who follows my blog knows my answer to that question. (For those that do not, my answer is, “Yes, if you plan on learning Korean beyond reading K-pop lyrics”). It might be better to answer that question by discussing first how much of the Korean vocabulary is made up of words based on Hanja (Sino-Korean words) and then what do Korean native speakers (besides me) actually think.
Almost 70% of Korean Vocabulary is from Hanja
Based on the Standard Korean Dictionary (標準國語大辭典, 표준국어대사전) published by the National Institute of the Korean Language (國語國立院, 국어국립원), Sino-Korean words (漢字語, 한자어) constitute approximately 69.1% of the Korean vocabulary. (Some sources put this at 60%, but that is still fairly high). Note that many of these words are homonyms (e.g., 賣場 and 埋葬 are both spelled 매장). “Pure” Korean words make up only 25.5% of the Korean vocabulary. The remaining 5.4% originated from other languages.
In term of actual use, the percentage of Sino-Korean words can vary in different contexts. For instance, in colloquial conversations, the percentage may be relatively low. In contrast, in technical and business settings, the percentage can be much higher and in the range of 80-90%, especially in writing.
The Vast Majority of Native Korean Speakers Find Hanja Necessary
A poll conducted in May of 2010 asked Korean college students from 23 different universities about Hanja. The first question was, “Has not knowing Hanja inconvenienced you ever in your daily life?” 5.7% answered, “definitely yes.” 52.1% answered, “yes.” 36.7% answered, “no.” And only 5.5% answered “definitely no.” Based on this survey, a total of 57.8% of Korean college students were inconvenienced at some point in their lives by their lack of knowledge of Hanja.
The second question was, “In public education,do you think Hanja education is necessary?” 84.4% answered “yes.” 15.4% answered “no.” 0.2% gave no answer.
The third question was, “In the daily use of the Korean language, do you think Hanja necessary?” 89% answered “yes.” 10.7% answered “no.” 0.3% gave no answer.
In another survey, parents of students and teachers of elementary schools were asked whether Hanja education was necessary. 89.1% of parents answered, “yes.” 77.3% of teachers answered, “yes.” An average of 82.9% answered “yes.”
Although Korean writing no longer has of large amounts written Hanja as it did back less than two decades ago (aside from certain fields of work and the occasional all-Hanja headline in the Chosun or Donga Ilbo), Korean native speakers still think knowing Hanja is necessary. In fact, there is a large (and now successful) movement to bring Hanja education back to public schools. In light of the attitudes of native Korean speakers, Korean language students should consider learning Hanja, especially if they intend on learning Korean at a high level.