Hangul and Hanja Activate Different Parts of the Brain

Hanja-Hangul Study - Brain Activation

One of the many arguments in the Hangul exclusivity (–專用, 한글전용) versus Hanja-Hangul mixed script (國漢文混用, 국한문혼용) relates to neurology. Mixed script advocates point out that Hanja (漢字, 한자), i.e., Chinese characters, is more stimulative for the brain and therefore better for brain development. (Hangul exclusivity advocates say it is too difficult for children without any empirical basis.) This assertion has now been tested by a Korean university in a recently published neurological study on Hanja and Hangul comprehension. Researchers conducted two experiments and took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) images from brain of the test subjects.

The first experiment tested which parts of the brain were activated when Hangul and Hanja were presented to the subjects. There were twelve subjects, including six males and six females, with an average age of 28. The researchers used 150 disyllabic Sino-Korean words written in Hanja deemed to be of fifth rank difficulty on the Hanja proficiency exam (i.e., 500 characters) and 150 words written Korean words in Hangul. Subjects were presented these words in rapid succession: one word for each second in the first 30 seconds and then allowed to rest for the next 30 seconds. This process was repeated five times.

The fMRI images showed that when Hanja was presented, the Broca’s area on the left hemisphere, premotor cortex, superior parietal lobule, fusiform gyrus, and extrastriate cortex were triggered.  In contrast, when Hangul was presented, only the angular gyrus and the inferior frontal area were triggered. These findings suggest that Hanja and Hangul activate different parts of the brain. The researchers, however, cautioned on concluding that Hanja was superior to Hangul just because it triggered more parts of the brain. Instead, they explained that each script, one being logographic and the other phonetic, has its own characteristics. 

The second experiment tested the memorization of Hanja versus Hangul names. For this experiment, there were also twelve subjects, including seven males and five females, with an average age of 27. While researchers took fMRI images, the subjects were shown 40 names in Hanja and in Hangul, and then were asked to identify the 80 names in total mixed in random order 1 minute, 10 minutes, and 120 minutes after.

The task experiment data showed that subjects were much better at memorizing names in Hanja versus Hangul. With Hanja, subjects recognized names at a rate of 96%, 88%, and 79% out at each of the time intervals respectively. In contrast, with Hangul, subjects only recognized names at a rate of 52%, 28%, and 12% respectively. Researchers concluded that subjects recognized Hanja better than Hangul because Hanja is a logogram.

Based on the two experiments, the researchers reasoned that it is possible that since Hanja and Hangul trigger different parts of the brain, mixed script education might help students’ brain development.

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2 comments
  1. Seochang said:

    Did the study mention anything about the prior proficiency of the test subjects in Hanja? If I’m not mistaken learning something new leads to the brain creating new neurological pathways in the brain. If the subjects are around 27/28 maybe seeing Hangul would spark very little in the brain because they are so used to it compared to the “new” Hanja.

    • 歸源 said:

      I am not sure. I am trying to obtain the paper.

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