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Can Korean scholars save a language?

In an effort to preserve their language, the Cia-Cia people of Indonesia try adopting the Korean alphabet.

So, why adopt Korea’s Hangul?

“The premise always has to be that there is no single alphabet that can express all of the languages across the world,” said Kim, who is also a linguist at Seoul National University. “But Hangul excels in phonetic representation.”

Hangul consists of 24 letters: 14 consonants and 10 vowels. The original alphabet had four extra letters that were later removed due to the lack of use, but despite that, the Korean letters have kept their phonetic rules intact over the years, unlike English.

“[In the English alphabet], if you look at the sound of double 'o's, it has a 'u' sound like in the word 'foot,' ” Kim explained, “so the English alphabet has actually messed up the original phonetic value that each letter had.” According to Kim, the same goes with the “a” sound in the word “face.” It should sound more like "a" in the word “fast” when pronounced with a British accent. He believes the changes over the years have made the Roman alphabet much more challenging to adopt.

As part of their mission to help the Cia-Cia preserve their fading language, a linguist from the Society collaborated with a local teacher to create a textbook using Hangul. The textbook took more than a year to complete, and has only been in use at primary and junior high-schools for a couple months.

But the response, so far, has been good, says a local official. “They really like it, learning Hangul,” Ivnu Wahid, a Bau-Bau city official, who facilitated the project, said. “It’s a good idea for the future, because the community can use the Korean alphabet language, they can also get work in Korea,” Wahid added. Kim and other members from the Hunminjeongeum Society are waiting to see how the Cia-Cia people adapt to their new writing system before seeking out other places to share Hangul.

For now, the targets will primarily be Asian countries, because of the physical proximity and relatively similar cultural values.

“But in the future, we will seek out all places with endangered languages and no writing systems,” Kim said.

According to Unesco, it is impossible to quantify how many of the world's roughly 6,800 languages go unwritten. Though Unesco puts forth that it is safe to say more than 6,000 of those languages are spoken by groups of less than a million people each, with some languages boasting less than 1,000 speakers. In other words, 95 percent of the world's languages are spoken by only 5 percent of its population.

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect the fact that Hangul was created around 600 years ago, and not thousands of years ago.