South Korean mothers know few bounds in trying to give their kids a leg up in speaking English. They play them nursery rhymes in the womb, hire pricey tutors for toddlers, send preschoolers to America to pick up the accent.
But now they’re even turning to surgery to sort out misplaced L and R sounds, underscoring the dark side of the crushing social pressures involved in getting a highly competitive society in shape for a globalized world.
The surgery involves snipping the thin tissue under the tongue to make it longer and supposedly nimbler. The government is so dismayed that its National Human Rights Commission has made a movie to scare the public into ceasing the practice.
It shows a young mother, obsessed with her son’s pronunciation at the kindergarten’s all-English Christmas play, rushing him to the clinic for a quick fix. The boy screams as the mother and nurses hold him down, the mother insisting: “It’s all for his future.”
“Many viewers close their eyes at the surgery scenes,” said director Park Jin-pyo, who used footage from a real operation. “I wanted them to see how our society tramples our children’s human rights in the name of their future.”
The English craze among preschool children took off four years ago when the government made English classes mandatory starting in the third grade.
Flawless English was once ridiculed as snobbish and even unpatriotic. Now it’s a status symbol and prized by business and colleges.
“Many parents have an illusion that good English could change their children’s lives,” said Song Young-hye, who runs “Wonderland,” one of the thousands of English-language schools that have mushroomed in South Korea’s English-teaching industry.
The medical procedure, called a frenulotomy, is used in the West in cases where the tissue under the tongue is abnormal and causes a speech impediment. No statistics exist on how many Korean children undergo it.
Although local media say it is widespread in Seoul’s wealthier districts, doctors call the reports exaggerated.
“Tongue-Tie” struck an immediate chord when it was seen in “If You Were Me,” a compendium of six short films about human rights in Korea released in cinemas to enthusiastic reviews in November.
Doctors scoff at the notion that the Korean tongue is too short or inflexible for proper English, noting that thousands of Korean Americans speak unaccented English without surgery.
Experts say practice, not surgery, is the key.
“Doing the surgery on a normal kid just for English pronunciation doesn’t make anatomical sense at all,” said Park Bom-chung at Seoul’s Kangnam Sacred Heart Hospital.
The operation takes 20 to 30 minutes under local anesthetic.
Noh Kyung-sun, a child psychologist at Seoul’s Kangbuk Samsung Hospital, calls the surgery “crazy” and cites the case of a 3 1/2-year-old to illustrate the parental zeal that disrupts children’s lives.
“That child came to my office and saw a big Jackson Pollock poster on the wall and could read each letter of the artist’s name at the bottom -- J-A-C-K-S-O-N -- but could speak neither English nor Korean,” he said.
The government has tried to absorb some of the overheated private English-instruction industry into the public school system, hiring more teachers, including native speakers. But there is no sign that the craze is losing steam.
The mania has even induced changes in the Korean language, like “goose fathers.” These are dads who work in South Korea and fly to the United States for seasonal reunions with their kids -- who have been transplanted to the America just to learn English.