Indonesian tribe turns to Korean to save language

Wed Dec 23, 2009 2:45am EST
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By Jon Herskovitz and Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters Life!) - For members of an Indonesian tribe visiting Seoul for the first time, the winter cold was beyond belief, the high-tech gadgets seemed to come from another world yet the language was eerily similar.

South Korea had been a distant country, home to Samsung TVs for the 60,000 members of the Cia-Cia tribe until earlier this year when a Korean woman with a love for her country's writing system convinced them to adapt the Korean script.

The tribe, looking to preserve a fading language that had been passed down orally but not through writing, agreed and since then the tribe has won its way into the hearts of South Koreans, who have rewarded it with teachers, text books and aid.

The odd linkage has been a linguistic coup for South Koreans, who celebrate the written language called Hangeul with a national holiday and see it as a defining element of a culture that has been for centuries in the shadow of neighbors China and Japan.

Several tribe members arrived in Seoul this week for a tour of cultural sights, a brief introduction into the history of Hangeul and a session with mayor of the South Korean capital, Oh Se-hoon, where he pledged exchanges with the people living in and around a town called Bau Bau on the island of Buton.

"It's a little uncomfortable being here. I can read what's written but I can't understand it," Samsir, a teenage boy who began using Hangeul to study the Cia-Cia language a few months ago, said at event with Mayor Oh.

Something like parental pride filled the room at the event when Cia-Cia teenager Fitriana was called on to read a line in Korean. Middle-aged Korean men in suits mouthed the words as she read and broke into applause when she finished the sentence.