Seoul tries to shock parents out of linguistic surgery

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The Independent Online

In South Korea's society of lofty aspirations, mastery of the English language is so highly prized that ambitious parents are forcing their children to have painful tongue surgery in order to give them perfect pronunciation.

In South Korea's society of lofty aspirations, mastery of the English language is so highly prized that ambitious parents are forcing their children to have painful tongue surgery in order to give them perfect pronunciation.

The operation, which involves snipping the thin tissue under the tongue to make it longer and supposedly nimbler, has become so common that the government has produced a film in an effort to shock parents into shunning the practice. The film, made by the National Human Rights Com-mission, shows a woman taking her son to a clinic so that he can perform flawlessly in his kindergarten's English-language Christmas play. The boy screams as she and the nurses hold him down, with his mother insisting: "It's all for his future." The procedure, which involves chopping half an inch off the frenulum, is often carried out on children under the age of five.

Park Jin-pyo, the director of the film, used footage from a real operation and said that most people were unable to watch the surgery scenes. He said: "I wanted them to see how our society tramples our children's human rights in the name of their future."

Parents in South Korea, a highly competitive society obsessed with education, already go to great lengths to provide their children with a head start in learning English. They play their children nursery rhymes in the womb, hire expensive tutors for toddlers and send pre-school children to the US for sought-after American accents.

Speaking fluent English, the language of choice in global business, is regarded as a prerequisite for getting ahead. English-language teaching is a multibillion-dollar industry, and children as young as seven are sent on evening "crammer" courses.

The surgery craze took off because of a perception that Asian people find it difficult to pronounce "l" and "r" sounds. However, doctors ridicule the idea that the Korean tongue is too short or inflexible to cope with the English language, saying that practice - not an operation - is required.

Park Bom-chung, a doctor at Kangnam Sacred Heart Hospital in Seoul, said: "Doing the surgery on a normal kid just for English pronunciation doesn't make anatomical sense at all."

The operation, a simple procedure performed after the children are given a local anaesthetic, is carried out in the West when the frenulum is abnormal and causes a speech impediment. There are no statistics on the number of children subjected to the surgery in South Korea, but Korean media report that the procedure is widespread in the wealthier districts of Seoul.

Learning English is a national fixation in South Korea, where a hot-line has been set up for people to report errors of English spelling or grammar on signs. Admission to an elite university is seen as pivotal to a child's opportunities in life, including marriage prospects.

Psychologists say that small children face intolerable pressures, with infants sitting in front of English teaching videos for up to five hours a day. One story carried by a weekly magazine, Dong-A, was headlined: "English makes children's lives hell!"

Cha Kyoung-ae, an English professor at a Seoul university, said: "English is now becoming a means of survival. Entering a college, getting jobs and getting promoted - many things hinge heavily on your mastery of English. The surgery may be an extreme case, but it reflects a social phenomenon."

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