Korean Tongue Surgery

How far should someone go to speak perfect English?

In Northeast Asia, some people have done things never imagined by native speakers. In centuries-old cultures a generation has tried to master a foreign language that has impossibly unfamiliar sounds, an entirely distinct alphabet, and a base of vastly different traditions.

Millions of Japanese, Taiwanese and Koreans of all ages spend much of their lives and lots of their money in the feverish pursuit of English mastery.

In every city and most towns of Japan for example you’re never far from an English language school. Every bookstore in this country sports a large section of how to learn English books, going into finer points of grammar that frankly most native speakers will never grasp. And every foreigner outside a city center is greeted by children shyly shouting “hello”.

In the countries of Northeast Asia it is for – or rather on – the children that the bulk of the push toward English has focused. Even children age three and earlier have been put into English instruction, in tandem with that of their native language.

But no one has attacked English more ferociously than the South Koreans. The national and state governments have made English mandatory in schools and built a series of English-only villages. Pregnant women have been directed by video programs to inject English into their unborn babies by speaking or playing nursery rhymes to the womb. Mothers migrated with their children in search of language classes in the USA. When immigration rules closed that opportunity, they relocated to Canada, Australia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

It didn’t stop there. Koreans turned on their children, next. They share with the Japanese a difficulty in pronouncing several of the common sounds of English, most famously “r” and “l”. “Rice” can sound like “lice”. And “lots of luck” can come out “rots of ruck”. As a result, some upwardly mobile parents have turned to frenulotomy as an answer.

The frenulum linguae is a bit of tissue under the tongue that attaches it to the bottom of the mouth. Some call it a tendon. You can see it in a mirror by pressing the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth. It’s that taut strand of cord that keeps your tongue from flopping backward.

Frenulotomy is the cutting of this tissue. It is performed in just three relatively rare situations.

The first is in cases of tongue deformities. Surgeons sometimes trim the frenulum to alleviate severe speech impediments. The second is in a special yogic practice where it is sliced back to free up the tongue. Why? So the practitioner can turn the tongue backward and up into the nasal passage.

Oooooo! Not something to think about. The third and remaining case is when some anxious Korean parents have their children’s frenulum cut to improve their English pronunciation.

The idea behind linguistic frenulotomies – tongue cutting – is that the Korean tongue is ill-suited for proper English. An ear, nose and throat specialist in Seoul was reported advising it for children under 5 years of age with short or inflexible tongues. Such is the passion for English in Korea that the national government there produced a film condemning tongue cutting as human rights abuse.

Does it work? More importantly, is it even necessary?

Consider: First, the procedure takes as little as ten minutes and costs as much as $400. Second, the Korean ears – or brains – are untrained to detect the distinction between r’s and l’s. Third, hundreds of thousands of Korean-Americans can speak unaccented English just fine without the surgery.

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