Some Koreans try tongue surgery to improve English
Arizona Daily Star
October 19, 2003
By Kim Kyoung-wha
SEOUL - Chop a half inch or so off your tongue and become a fluent English
That is the hope that recently drove one mother to take her 6-year-old son for
surgery aimed at ridding him of his Korean accent when speaking the language of
choice in global business.
Driven by a desire to give their kids an edge in an increasingly competitive
society, a surprising number of South Koreans have turned to the knife in a
seemingly drastic bid to help their offspring perfect their English.
"Those who have a short frenulum (a strap of
tissue linking the tongue to the floor of the mouth) can face problems
pronouncing some characters due to a disturbance in lateral movements of the
tongue," said Bae Jung-ho, an oral surgeon at Seoul's Yonsei Severance Hospital,
who operated on the 6 year old last month.
Bae said it takes about five minutes to complete the operation, called a
frenotomy, which slices about half an inch off the frenulum to make the tongue
"There is a razor-thin risk of complications and, unless it is the best option
possible, we don't recommend it."
Bae said that he had received many inquiries about the operation, mostly for
children between 12 months and 10 years. Of these, only 10 percent to 20 percent
had led to surgery.
The doctor said he performs the surgery, which costs 150,000 won ($127), once or
twice per month.
For a tangible improvement for those with ankyloglossia - the medical term for
those with a short frenulum - months of language training is needed even after
"It takes time to see pronunciation actually improve as picking up a language or
saying it properly is a complicated process to master," he added.
Using surgery to enhance your looks is already common in South Korea, where many
resort to plastic surgery to make their eyes bigger, noses shapelier and even
their calves slimmer.
In the case of tongue surgery, many psychologists, professors and native English
speakers argue that there are many downsides.
Dr. Shin Min-sup, a professor at Seoul National University who specializes in
issues of adolescent psychiatry, is worried about the trend for surgery and also
for pushing young children too hard to learn languages.
"There's the potential for life-damaging aftereffects," Shin said. "Learning a
foreign language too early, in some cases, may not only cause a speech
impediment but, in the worst case, make an child autistic."