Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Apr 3 19:40:14 UTC 2002
LA Times, March 31, 2002
THE WORLD Some in S. Korea Opt for a Trim When English Trips the Tongue
Asia: Parents are turning to specialty preschool and
even surgery to give their children a linguistic advantage.
By BARBARA DEMICK, TIMES STAFF WRITER
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. 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," 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 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 hotline for citizens to call if they see
English spelling or grammar mistakes on public signs. "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 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!" declared 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 usually are done in private clinics. However, doctors
say the procedure's popularity has soared 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 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
Jung said 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 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 fashionable 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, upstairs from a chic cafe aptly called Plastic.
Most of the parents who bring their children in for surgery, he said, were
themselves frustrated by an 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 also 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. "OK,
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 linguist Lee Ho Young at Seoul National
University. The real problem for South Koreans, as for Japanese, is that
their own languages make no distinction between Ls and Rs, so their ears
cannot detect the difference, Lee said.
Although English has long been the most popular second
language here, people say enthusiasm picked up after the Asian financial
crisis of 1997, when hundreds of thousands lost their jobs and South Korea
turned to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout. That episode
brought home for South Koreans just how vulnerable they are to the
international economy. "The 21st century globalization school" is the
slogan of the Phillip School, painted on the side of its shiny bus,
although many students arrive in chauffeur-driven foreign cars.
The school, which opened last year in Apkujong, was the
first English preschool in Seoul aimed at South Koreans. The students, as
young as 18 months, are taught exclusively in English, except for two
hours a week when they have Chinese lessons. Although tuition runs to
nearly $800 a month, a steep price by South Korean standards, there is a
waiting list. Child psychiatrists do not dispute the importance of
English, but they warn that South Koreans might be going too far.
"Parents are very competitive here," said Shin Yee Yin, a psychiatrist at
Yonsei University. "They feel the only way to enhance social class is to
educate the children well, and if the children can speak English like a
native they are guaranteed success. But the children, they lose hair, they
bite their nails, they have sleep terrors. There is too much pressure from
the mothers and teachers to learn English."
In the last year, Shin has treated two patients--ages 4 and
2--who had the tongue operation and a larger number who have what
psychiatrists here have identified as a syndrome caused by spending too
much time watching language-training videos. Shin, who has lectured about
this syndrome at international conferences, said it has been reported in
only two countries: South Korea and Turkey. "These children watch videos
maybe five hours a day," Shin said. "They know a lot of words in English,
like 'chair' and 'table,' but they speak like robots in a monotonous
accent and cannot communicate properly." All this is bewildering to
parents struggling to do the right thing. "The whole society is going for
English," said Kim Yeon Ju, a 34-year-old homemaker whose 6-year-old son
has studied the language for three years and now attends English-language
kindergarten. "My children will learn Korean at home, so they can go to
school in English."
Another mother, Kim Young Pun, a fashion designer in her
early 40s, is conflicted about whether to get a tongue operation for her
14-month-old daughter. "It is so difficult to know what to do," Kim said.
"At first when I heard about this operation, I was shocked by the idea.
But a mother's ambition for her child is unlimited. You don't want them to
miss any opportunity."
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