Surgically precise English

SUN JOURNAL

South Korea: Convinced that fluency in English is the key to success, parents in Seoul subject their children -even toddlers - to intensive instruction and questionable tongue snips.

April 13, 2002|By Barbara Demick | Barbara Demick,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SEOUL, South Korea - 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.

It is a simple procedure: Just a snip on a membrane and the tongue is supposedly longer, more flexible and - some South Koreans believe - better able to pronounce such notorious tongue-teasers for Asians as the English word "rice" so it does not sound like "lice."

"Parents are eager to have their children speak English, and so they want to have them get the operation," says 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."

Starting in infancy

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 up to $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 doesn't 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 English spelling or grammar mistakes on public signs.

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

Not surprisingly, a backlash is developing against the mania. 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!" declares a recent cover story in the weekly magazine Dong-A.

The most controversial aspect of the English craze 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 the tip. If the tongue can't easily touch the roof of the mouth, it is difficult to pronounce some sounds.

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

"This is a recent phenomenon," says 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 [the procedure] will make their children fluent in English."

Jung says the operation involves a simple cut in the frenulum, which takes as few as 10 minutes and can be done as outpatient surgery with local anesthetic. It usually costs between $230 and $400.

Jung says it helps pronunciation in 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 R's and L's properly," Jung says. "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," Koh says. "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.

"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 fashionable Apkujong neighborhood, especially near a strip known as Rodeo Street.

Nam, a former professor at Seoul National University who specializes in jaw reconstruction, runs the Cleo Plastic & Dental Clinic in a sleek new building.

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