Before you read the rest of this post, you'll need to know a little bit about Korean language. Here is a super condensed history of the Korean language in one sentence:
Long long ago, people in Korea used to read and write logographic characters taken from Chinese (and as you know there are lots and lots and lots of different characters so it's a bit diificult), but then in the 15th Century a famous, brilliant and genius king called Sejong the Great came up with a new super-simple phonetic writing system called Hangeul, which of course became very popular and eventually replaced the old complicated Chinese character system, and now in modern day Korea (both North and South) Hangeul is the official Korean script.
But what about those old Chinese characters? Can you still find them in Korea? Yep, you can. They are called Hanja, and there are a number of reasons why it might be useful to learn a few of them. Firstly, they can often be seen in newspapers, and sometimes on shop signs. Secondly, if you are interested in history, you can see Hanja in ancient texts at museums, palaces and temples. Most young people in Korea don't have a particularly in-depth knowledge of Hanja, but will have studied it at school and therefore know some. Here are the most common Hanja that you might see in Korea:
1. 美 ( 미 ) beauty, America
There are two places you'll find this character. Firstly, on signs for beauty salons, and secondly in newspapers when referring to the USA ( 미국 - 美國 ).
2. 男 ( 남 ) man
Sometimes this character can be seen on the sign for the men's toilets, and it's also often in the titles of Korean dramas, such as my current favourite, '인현 왕후의 男子' ('Queen In Hyun's Man').
3. 女 ( 녀 ) woman
This character may be used on the sign for the ladies' toilets, just as the male charcter above might be on the door for the men's. You'll probably see it in other places too, and it always means 'woman', 'girl' or 'female'.
4. 英 ( 영 ) flower, Britain
This character always indicates England/Britain/the UK ( 영국 - 英國 ), or the English language ( 영어 - 英語 ). So if you see it in a newspaper it's probably news from the UK.
5. 日 ( 일 ) day, sun, Japan
This character usually represents Japan ( 일본 - 日本 ), but could also indicate 'day/date' in a calender.
6. 中 ( 중 ) middle, centre, China
If you see it in a newspaper, it will be talking about China ( 중국 - 中國 ), but elsewhere it might be a size indicator, for example on a restaurant menu it could mean 'medium sized portion' (see 7 and 8).
7. 小 ( 소 ) small
This might be in a restaurant or cafe, indicating a small plate, cup or portion.
8. 大 ( 대 ) big
This is a very common and very simple one, and probably the most important to learn. Why? Because it forms part of the name of Korea! ( 大韓民國 - 대한민국 ). If you were in Korea during the FA World Cup 2010, you will have seen '大한민국' all over red T-shirts and banners everywhere. '大' basically means big, but it can be big as in 'great' or 'grand'.
9. 北 ( 북 ) North
Look out for this one in the news, because it will be referring to North Korea ( 北韓 - 북한 ). These characters that form the beginning of country names (1, 4, 5, 6 and 9) are used in newspapers as a shorthand, so even though it may only say '北' (North), it's more than likely to be short for 北韓 (North Korea). Elsewhere it could just mean the direction of North - For example on compass or map.
10. 海 ( 해 ) sea
I chose this one because you might see it on a restaurant sign. It means 'sea', so can you guess what kind of food you'll find in a restaurant with this character on the sign?! Answers on a piece of paper please.