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Indonesian Tribe Learns to Write with Korean Alphabet

Cia Cia children visited downtown Seoul. The children know how to read hangul - which until recently was not a written language

South Korean exports are world-renowned among those who shop for mobile phones or flat-screen TVs. But the country is offering a different export to a small Indonesian community - its writing system.

Members of an Indonesian ethnic group called the Cia Cia took a walk around downtown Seoul recently, some of them getting their first taste of freezing winter weather.

Their arrival was greeted by a media frenzy and an appearance by Seoul's mayor.

Such treatment is usually reserved for pop stars, or Olympic athletes. These Cia Cia children are neither, but they do have a special skill.

The children know how to read hangul - the Korean alphabet system.

The Cia Cia never had a writing system of their own for records or literature, until last year, when South Korean scholars persuaded them to make hangul their own.

South Korea dispatched teachers to Bau-Bau, where the Cia Cia live on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Seoul National University Professor Lee Ho-young led the effort to promote hangul to the Cia Cia. He says he wants to preserve linguistic diversity. "We want to protect rapidly disappearing languages in the world. Indigenous languages are weakening under the influence of powerful central governments, and because they have no alphabet," he said.

Hangul is a simple and logical phonetic system. Unlike the Roman alphabet, each letter conforms to one basic sound, so South Korean scholars say it is a practical option for the Cia Cia, even though Indonesia's main official language, Bahasa Indonesia, uses the Roman script.

In addition to its alphabet, South Korea is offering infrastructure assistance by building schools and libraries for the Cia Cia.

Lessons in Korean will also be offered, as these Indonesians get more comfortable with hangul.