Original URL: http://www.azstarnet.com/star/sun/31019IKOREA-TONGUE.html

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 speaker.

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 more flexible.

"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 surgery.

"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."