Korea scripts an Indonesian tribe’s survival

South Korea, known for high-tech exports such as cars and cellphones, is sending a new product abroad: its alphabet.

A tribe on a remote Indonesian island, in danger of losing its culture because it has no written language, recently designated Korean Hangul as its official alphabet.

“Of Indonesia’s 700 local languages, most lack a writing system,” said Chun Tai-hyun, vice president of the Hunminjeongeum Society, an academic research group that studies how to promulgate Hangul.

A nine-member delegation of the Cia-Cia tribe arrived in Seoul last week to visit the homeland of their adopted script. The tribe, which numbers 60,000 people, is centered in Bau-Bau, a town on Buton Island off southeastern Sulawesi.

“I am very elated being in South Korea,” Fitriana, a 16-year-old high school student, said at a news conference, reading Korean letters on a placard in front of journalists. Like many Indonesians, Fitriana goes by one name.


Cia-Cia primary and high school students now enjoy a weekly Hangul lesson, officials say. Most catch on quickly.

“Seventy-five percent of students at my school use Hangul fluently after four months,” said Zumiani, an elementary school principal.

Bau-Bau Mayor Amirul Tamim said he chose Hangul because it was better suited to the nuances of his tribe’s language than the Roman characters that Indonesia uses in its written language.

South Korea has agreed to build a center in Bau-Bau to train language teachers and help document Cia-Cia’s history and culture, which dates back 600 years.

But challenges remain. The project remains short of both funds and manpower.

“Because parents of those learning Hangul study their kids’ books at home, textbooks are worn to tatters quickly.” Chun said.

Chun, 56, who has studied linguistics for three decades, plans to research other indigenous Indonesian languages near the Cia-Cia region in an effort to help prevent their extinction.

“I had thought that Hangul was just a pride of Koreans,” Chun said. “Now it appears that Hangul is an alphabet that the Cia-Cia tribe can also be proud of.”

Park is a researcher in The Times’ Seoul Bureau.