SEOUL, South Korea - South Korea, known for high-profile exports from cars to cell phones, is sending a new product abroad: its alphabet.
A tribe from 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 promote Hangul. He said his proposal to adopt Hangul was favorably received when he proposed the idea to the mayor of Baubau months ago.
Last week, a nine-member delegation of the Cia-Cia tribe arrived in Seoul to visit the homeland of their adopted alphabet. The tribe, which numbers 60,000, comes from Baubau, 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. Like many Indonesians, Fitriana goes by one name.
Back home, officials say, primary and high school students now get a weekly Hangul lesson. Most catch on quickly.
"Seventy-five percent of students at my school use Hangul fluently after four months," said Zumiani, an elementary school principal.
Baubau Mayor Amirul Tamim said he chose Hangul because it was better suited to the nuances of his tribe's language than the Roman characters Indonesia uses in its written language.
South Korea has agreed to build a center in Baubau to train language teachers and help document the Cia-Cia's 600-year history and culture.
Challenges remain. The project remains short on money and manpower. "Because parents of those learning Hangul study their kids' book at home, textbooks are worn to tatters quickly," Chun said.
Chun, 56, who has studied linguistics for three decades, plans to research other indigenous languages near the Cia-Cia region in an effort to help preserve vanishing tribal languages.
"It all seems like a dream," Chun said. "I had thought that Hangul was just a pride of Koreans. Now it appears that Hangul is an alphabet that the Cia-Cia tribe can also be proud of."