A snip of the tongue and English is yours!
Barbara Demick
Los Angeles Times
April 8, 2002

Korean children undergo fad surgery

SEOUL In a swank neighborhood renowned for designer boutiques and plastic surgery clinics, anxious parents drag frightened toddlers into Dr. Nam Il Woo's office and demand that he operate on the children's tongues.

t is a simple procedure: Just a snip in a membrane and the tongue is supposedly longer, more flexible and - some South Koreans believe - better able to pronounce such notorious English tongue-teasers as "rice" without it sounding like "lice."

"Parents are eager to have their children speak English, and so they want to have them get the operation," said Nam, who performs about 10 procedures a month, almost all on children younger than 5, in his well-appointed offices in the Apkujong district here. "It is not cosmetic surgery. In some cases, it really is essential to speak English properly."

In this competitive and education-obsessed society, fluent and unaccented English is the top goal of language study and is pursued with fervor. It is not unusual for 6-month-old infants to be put in front of the television for as long as five hours a day to watch instruction videos, or for 7-year-olds to be sent out after dinner for English cram courses.

South Korean parents will spend the equivalent of a month's salary here on monthly tuition at English-language kindergartens and as much as $50 an hour for tutors. Between the after-school courses, flashcards, books and videos, English instruction is estimated to be a $3 billion-a-year industry - and that does not include the thousands of children sent abroad to hone their skills.

In another display of linguistic zeal, the Seoul city government recently set up a hot line for citizens to call if they see spelling or grammar mistakes on public signs that are in English.

"Learning English is almost the national religion," said Jonathan Hilts, the host of a popular English-language talk show on South Korea's Educational Broadcasting System.

Not surprisingly, a backlash is developing. Linguists warn that children pushed too early or too hard to learn the language might end up in linguistic limbo, speaking neither English nor Korean with skill. Child psychiatrists report cases of preschoolers suffering anxiety from too much pressure.

"English makes children's lives hell!" declared a recent cover story in the weekly magazine Dong-A. .The most controversial aspect is the tongue surgery, which critics say is unnecessary. The procedure, known as frenectomy, has been used for years to correct a condition popularly known as "tongue-tie," in which the thin band of tissue under the tongue - the frenulum - extends to its tip. If the tongue can't easily touch the roof of the mouth, it is difficult for a person to pronounce some sounds.

No statistics exist in South Korea about the number of such operations, which usually are done in private clinics. However, doctors say the procedure's popularity has soared along with the boom in English instruction.

"This is a recent phenomenon," said Jung Do Kwang, an ear, nose and throat specialist at the Hana Nose Institute in Seoul. "Korean mothers have a fervor for education. They think it will make their children fluent in English."

Jung said the operation takes as little as 10 minutes and can be done as outpatient surgery with local anesthetic. It usually costs $230 to $400.

Jung said it helps pronunciation of both English and Korean if the procedure is performed on a child younger than 5 and if the patient has a tongue that is genuinely too short or inflexible.

"If the tongue is really short, you can't pronounce Rs and Ls properly," Jung said. "But this condition is relatively uncommon, and you get 10 times as many parents who want the operation as children who really need it."

A study published in 2000 of 37 children who had undergone the operation was inconclusive because young people usually cannot pronounce words properly until about age 9, according to Koh Joong Wha, a throat specialist who wrote the study.

"This operation is taking place more than in the past. The reason being that the younger generation is affluent and, having no more than two children, they pay a lot of attention to each child and their expectations of their children are getting higher," Koh said. "And, of course, there is the income these operations generate, so doctors are reluctant to say no."

In Seoul, the operation is most often performed in the Apkujong neighborhood, especially near a strip known as Rodeo Street. Interspersed among designer stores such as Gucci and Jil Sander are dozens of clinics specializing in plastic surgery.

Nam, a former professor at Seoul National University who specializes in jaw reconstruction, runs the Cleo Plastic Dental Clinic in a sleek new building. Most of the parents who bring their children in for surgery, he said, were frustrated by their own inability to learn English and want their children to have an easier time. "Some people blame the length of the tongue instead of recognizing how difficult it is to learn a foreign language," he added.

Linguists sneer at the idea that South Koreans' tongues are too short to speak English properly, pointing to the unaccented speech of hundreds of thousands of Korean Americans.

"O.K., since Westerners are taller they might have longer tongues. But this operation lengthens the tongue by only a millimeter or two and that has nothing to do with it," said Lee Ho Young, a linguist at Seoul National University.

The real problem for South Koreans, as for Japanese, is that their languages make no distinction between Ls and Rs, so they cannot detect the difference, Lee said.