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Friday, April 22, 2005

Koreans' reading comprehension of Korean

OECD has surveyed the capacity for actual reading comprehension in its member states, and it has turned out that Korea has gotten the lowest scores, that is Koreans have the lowest understanding of official and technical texts among the OECD countries(from Munhwa Ilbo).

Three of four have according to the survey difficulties understanding documents which contain information and techonology needed in a new workplace (we're not told what kind of a workplace). The proportion of people who have trouble understanding texts needed in everyday life like medication dosage is 38%, way higher than the OECD average of 22%. The survey looked at people's understanding of documents like employment applications, tax forms, traffic timetables, maps and the like.

The percentage of people who understand complicated text containing information of the latest techonology is no more than 2 or 3 in Korea, one tenth of what it is in Norway, Denmark, Canada and so.

I'm not really surprised at all about this, thinking of how non-lucid (?) official, formal written Korean can be, and how opaque for example all kind of formular writing can be. I'm of course talking as a non-native speaker, but so the native speakers are in trouble as well. Or actually the formal language in those kind of Korean contexts isn't really native at all for many Koreans.

One part of this unfortunate phenomenon has got to do with the idea that the Chinese characters are not really needed to understand or to write the Korean language as it used in official contexts at the moment. Koreans' poor performance in understanding everyday pieces of formal texts shows how the Chinese character terminology becomes difficult to understand when written in the wonderful hangul. (Knowing Chinese characters helps in understanding also the pure-hangul texts - and I know it even with my shobby knowledge of hanja.)

This is the reason why for example my wife says Finnish-language official documents are much easier for her than Korean-language ones (in case she sometimes happens to see those), despite that the latter is her native (and much stronger) language.

Professor Kim Chang-jin writes of the same survey in his blog:
이것은 바로 우리나라의 한글 전용 정책으로 인해서 국민들의 어휘력과 독해력이 떨어진 데 그 근본 원인이 있습니다. 우리나라 대부분의 국민은 글자는 읽을 수 있어도(그것도 정확한 발음으로 읽는 사람은 거의 없습니다) 그 뜻은 정확하게 파악하지 못합니다. 한글 전용 정책 40년의 결과가 이렇게 참혹하게 나타나는 것입니다. 이래도 한자 교육이 필요없다는 사람들은 나라의 역적들인 것입니다.
Professor Kim's blog contains a lot of material on the Korean language. He seems to be especially concerned with the distinction between long and short pronunciation of vowels. This is interesting, since in the teaching of Korean as a foreign language the distinction between long and short vowels seems not to exist, or at least I've never encountered it. (And I'm saying this as a speaker of a language in which the distinction between long and short vowels is decisive.)

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Comments to note "Koreans' reading comprehension of Korean" (Comments to posts older than 14 days are moderated)

<Anonymous Janny> said on 24.4.05 : 

You are absolutely right. Koreans can read and understand pretty good, e.g. in school textbooks. They have got very good marks in the PISA study in this part, too.

But when it comes to things like laws korean can be so difficult to understand and because of this most koreans don't even try to understand it. It's all the remaining spirit of confucian scholars which says: "common people do not need to understand complicated texts"

<Blogger kotaji> said on 25.4.05 : 

I've alway had this strong feeling that there is a problem with the purist approach to the Korean language - and here is the evidence for it. Of course I'm sure technical writing could be made clearer and plainer. But there's not getting away from the fact, as far as I can see it, that Chinese characters are an indispensible part of the Korean language. I remember talking to a few Koreans of that particular generation (maybe in their forties-fifties now) who didn't get much hanja education, if any. They definitely felt somewhat disadvantaged by this.

<Blogger june cho> said on 26.4.05 : 

As a native Korean myself, I have difficulty reading Korean official (?) documents too. There are so many Chinese-blended words, which I don't understand. My departure from Korea made Korean-Chinese words unintelligible, but according to this, I may not be the only one!

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