Hanja is the Korean name for Chinese characters. More specifically, it refers to Chinese characters that are borrowed and used to make Korean words and pronunciation. This is not only difficult for Korean learners, but also for Koreans. This is why even Koreans continue to study Hanja in order to use advanced Korean vocabulary.
Because Hanja accounts for the majority of Korean words (nouns mostly), it is hard not to notice them at first while learning Korean. For example, let’s talk about learning how to count in Korean. There are two different ways to count numbers in Korean:
The first way to count numbers is the “Chinese way” like this : 일, 이, 삼, 사, 오 …. That method is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese characters of: “一, 二, 三, 四, 五…”
The second way is the “Korean way” like this : 하나, 둘, 셋, 넷, 다섯…
However, to tell you the truth, you do not need to know how to write or read the Hanja, because you will see “일, 이, 삼…” and mostly not “一, 二, 三…”.
Once you know both ways to count numbers, you will be able to read time in Korean. We use the Korean way for hours and the Chinese way for minutes like this: 5:05 (다섯시 오분). There are certain thoughts that must be expressed in the Chinese way, such as years, months, days, and monetary units.
Is it necessary to study Hanja?
The answer, unfortunately, is yes and no.
As I mentioned earlier, if you want to express the time in Korean, you need to know the Chinese way to count numbers. But that does not mean that you need to read and write Hanja itself. That’s because Koreans commonly write or speak the Korean pronunciation of Hanja. Even native Koreans often will not be able to write proper Hanja for a Korean word. Most of the time, if there are a few Hanja in the books or news articles, they will be accompanied by the Korean pronunciation too.
Therefore, you don’t need to struggle memorizing all the Hanja. If you read the Korean pronunciation of Chinese characters and know the meaning, there will not be any issue.
The history of Hanja in Korean
Han-geul had been created in the 1440s by King Sejong the Great. However, it was not used all over the country until the late 19th and early 20th century. Therefore, until that time it was necessary to be fluent in reading and writing Hanja in order to be literate in Korean.
Today, it is important to know Chinese characters well only if you want to study older texts, or scholarly ones. For the rest of us, learning a certain number of Hanja is very helpful to understanding the etymology of Sino-Korean words, and to enlarging our Korean vocabulary.