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 and $400.
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.”