In commemoration of Hangul Day, which is on October 9, the Korean Gallup Poll recently ran an opinion poll on Koreans’ views on Hangul and Hanja and their role in Korean language and society. The poll was conducted last week from September 30 to October 2, and asked over 1,000 Koreans from various age, occupational, and regional backgrounds. The questions studied were:
- Whether not knowing Hanja has made life uncomfortable.
- Whether Hanja is “Korean” (우리) or “foreign.”
- Whether Hangul-Hanja mixed script should be used.
- Why Koreans should use exclusively Hangul or mixed script.
- Whether they favored the plan to reintroduce mixed script into school textbooks in 2018.
The Gallup Poll compared the responses from this poll with a similar one they did in 2002.
1. Whether Not Knowing Hanja Has Made Life Uncomfortable (54% Yes, 46% No)
The pollsters asked to those that did not know Hanja whether not knowing Hanja has made life uncomfortable. The poll results in 2002 showed that 70% of Koreans overall answered “yes,” but this year’s poll showed that it had dropped to 54% for “yes.” The data also show generational differences, ranging from 63% in the affirmative in the 60 years or above group to 48% in the 19-29 year age group. There were also differences in occupation. Those who worked in white collar professions answered 54% yes, while students and blue collared workers answered 45% and 47% respectively.
2. Whether Hanja is Korean or Foreign? (48% Korean, 47% Foreign)
The second question pollsters asked was whether Hanja was “Korean” (or “Ours”*) or “foreign.” In sum, 47% responded it was “foreign,” 48% “Korean,” and 7% were undecided or refused to answer. This is not that different from the 2002 poll. The data showed some generational differences. While those in their 40s and 60s answered that Hanja was Korean 51% and 53% respectively, those in their 20s, 30s, and 50s responded that it was 45%, 45%, and 42% respectively. There were also gender differences. 54% of women responded that Hanja is Korean, while only 41% of men answered that it was. In addition, 54% of those who had answer that not knowing Hanja made life difficult responded that Hanja was Korean, while only 40% of those who responded they had little difficult responded similarly.
*By “Ours,” the implication is not whether Hanja was created by Koreans. (Only the ultra-nationalist fringe unfortunately too common on YouTube believe that.) Rather, the question is about whether Hanja is apart of Korean culture.
3. Whether Hanja-Hangul Mixed Script or Hangul Exclusive Script Should Be Used (53% for Mixed, 41% for Exclusive)
The next question was whether Hangul-Hanja mixed script should be used or Hangul exclusive script should be used. In 2002, 55% of Koreans believed that mixed script should be use, 33% believed that exclusive script should be used, and the rest were undecided. This year’s poll reveals that the percentage of Koreans in favor of mixed script actually increased to 57%. There were age differences. Only 50% of those in their 20s were in favor of mixed script, but those in their 30s or above were more supportive, with 55% and higher. In addition, there were occupational differences. 61% of White collar professionals and 59% of those self-employed were in favor of mixed script, but only 52% of blue collar workers were in favor. Those who had previously responded that not knowing Hanja has made life difficult were overwhelming in favor of mixed script with 67%, while those who responded that they had little difficulty answered only 46% in favor.
4. Why Koreans Should Use Mixed Script or Exclusive Script
The fourth question asked those in favor of mixed script or the exclusive what their reason was. These respondents were separated based on their answer in question 3.
Among those who had responded that they were in favor of mixed script, 67% responded that their reason was that Hanja conveys meaning more adequately, 11% stated because they were used to it, 5% because Hanja and Hangul are intimately related, another 5% because of foreign relations with China, 4% for cultural reasons, 4% for education, and the remaining 4% responded miscellaneously, did not know, or refused to respond.
As for those who had responded that they were in favor of the exclusive script, 26% responded that it was because there are many people who do not know Hanja, 25% because Hangul is easier and more convenient, 23% because Hangul is self-sufficient, 22% because Hangul is Korea’s native script, 3% because of their worried that Hangul might be distorted, and the remaining 2% did not know or refused to respond.
5. Support for the 2018 Plan to Reintroduce Hanja-Hangul Mixed Script Textbooks (67% in Favor, 29% Against)
The final question was about the plan to reintroduce mixed script textbooks to third grade elementary school by 2018, which was announced by the Korean Ministry of Education on September 24. Respondents were overwhelming in favor with 67% for and 29% against. There were age differences, however. Only 59% of those in the 19-29 age group responded in favor. In contrast, 82% of those above the age of 60 were in favor. Large disparities appeared based on questions 2 and 3. Those who had responded that not knowing Hanja made life difficult were 76% in favor, but those that stated that it has made it little difficult were only 57% in favor. Furthermore, those who were in favor of mixed script were 84% in favor, but those who were for exclusive script were only 45% in favor.
Short Informal Analysis
The responses to the first question were the most interesting. The percentage of those who stated that not knowing Hanja made their life difficult decreased from 70% to 54% from 2002 to 2014. There could be a number of reasons for this decline. (While there was a 40% percentage difference in the sample size between the two studies, they both had more than 1,000 respondents. Therefore, upon just preliminary examination, the sample size is probably not an issue.) For one, these figures could be mere reflection of the decline in the use of Hanja in Korean print. Based on personal observations, use of Hanja in newspapers, which was already low at the turn of the millennium, have noticeably decreased even further since then. Even academic texts in some studies, such as the sciences, started shunning Hanja. Another could be confirmation bias among respondents themselves. Those who had responded that they had no difficulty without knowing Hanja were more likely to view Hanja as a foreign script and were less favorable of mixed script. In addition, as the Gallup poll notes, Hangul exclusivists are quite vociferous in their anti-Hanja opinions. (I would venture to say that these opinions are so strongly held that it might very well be that they have actually experienced difficulty because of their lack of knowledge in Hanja, but refused to answer that they did.) The same could be said about those who stated that not knowing Hanja has made life more difficult; however, it should be noted that knowledge of Hanja has shown to in fact increase vocabulary.
Another interesting part of the data were the responses to the last question on opinions about the reintroduction of mixed script textbooks. Although those who were in favor of mixed script were overwhelmingly in favor of the reintroduction, almost half of those against mixed script were in favor as well. Even the younger generation was in favor of it. This might be because many recognize that learning Hanja has become popular again after long neglect, and they expect the school system to catch up along with demand for the subject.
In sum, contrary to how some Hangul exclusivists are spinning this poll, these results do seem promising for Hanja’s future in Korea. Although the poll does show that slightly less Koreans think learning Hanja is as practical as about a decade ago, many still want it being used and taught more. Even I was rather surprised that more than half of Koreans were still in favor of mixed script, more than 40 years after it was actively discouraged by the military dictatorship. (President Park Chunghee had a five-year plan to abolish Hanja use entirely.) A poll by Korean newspapers in the 1970s I remember reading awhile back showed actually the reverse, with slightly less than half of Koreans wanting mixed script. Such sentiments will hopefully further increase its popularity.