Koreans take a short cut on the road to English

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The Independent Online

The Koreans, the Japanese and the Chinese are among the world's most dedicated learners of English, but they share a common weakness, the inability of many to distinguish between the sounds of the letters "l" and "r". Now, after decades of cruel jokes about "rice" and "lice",Korean doctors claim to have found a miraculous cure: a surgical operation to improve English pronunciation.

The Koreans, the Japanese and the Chinese are among the world's most dedicated learners of English, but they share a common weakness, the inability of many to distinguish between the sounds of the letters "l" and "r". Now, after decades of cruel jokes about "rice" and "lice",Korean doctors claim to have found a miraculous cure: a surgical operation to improve English pronunciation.

Korean parents are paying up to £275 for an operation on their children's tongues, in the belief that it will improve their English, almost before they can speak their own language.

The operation, called a lingual frenectomy, involves snipping the frenulum, the web of stringy tissue below the tongue. If children are born with a frenulum too long or too tight, it inhibits the tongue from touching the roof of the mouth. This, in turn, hampers the production of certain sounds, including l and r. Cutting the frenulum lengthens the tongue by a millimetre or two.

"Parents are eager to have their children speak English," says Dr Nam Il Woo, who does about 10 frenectomies every month, most of them on children under five. "It is not cosmetic surgery. In some cases, it really is essential to speak English properly."

The problem is that parents, in their eagerness to give their children the best start in life, are putting those with perfectly healthy, flexible tongues under Dr Nam's scalpel.

Jung Do Kwang, another doctor, told the Los Angeles Times: "If the tongue is really short, you can't pronounce r and l properly. But this condition is relatively uncommon, and you get 10 times as many parents who want the operation as children who really need it."

Among many Korean families, mastery of English – often to be followed by study overseas – is regarded as the single most efficient means of personal betterment. Private nurseries offer English immersion courses to children at 18 months old, as well as Chinese instruction, for £550 a month. Video English courses for babies are also popular.

There is the apocryphal story of the campaigning American politician who, on a visit to Tokyo, was amazed when Japanese admirers wished him all the best with his erection.In truth, physiology has little to do with it. Japanese has nothing exactly corresponding to the English l and r. Japanese speakers of English use a native sound between the two.

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