Can tongue surgery improve English-speaking ability?

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    TV Tokyo’s “Ariehen Sekai” recently aired a segment about a form of tongue surgery that is being offered by some doctors in South Korea because some parents there are convinced that their children cannot properly pronounce English words because their tongues are too short:

    Note: This video was removed from YouTube because users flagged it as “inappropriate.” As it didn’t contain anything more graphic that the other video linked in this post, I can only conclude that it was flagged because somebody out there either 1) can’t tell the difference between a tongue and human genitilia or 2) a few Koreans were offended that the existence of this surgery was being shown to the world on YouTube.

    The procedure is known as a lingual frenectomy:

    The removal of the lingual frenulum under the tongue can be accomplished with either frenectomy or frenuloplasty. This is used to treat a tongue tied patient. Immediately after this minor oral surgery, the tongue can often dramatically extend out of the mouth which it could not do before. This can help reduce breastfeeding complications, help improve speech and promote proper tooth arch development.

    The Wikipedia article quoted above contained no source citations for that information. The Korean surgeon interviewed on the Japanese TV show did make a similar claim about the surgical procedure helping children with their pronunciation. An anonymous patient says he got the surgery because he heard it improves one’s kissing ability.

    YouTuber ZionKhim has proudly uploaded a video of his child undergoing a lingual frenulum. (Warning: Don’t click the link if you don’t want to see a baby cry as his tongue is cut.)

    The Los Angeles Times ran a story about Korean children getting this kind of tongue surgery back in 2002. It states the obvious, in case a few readers have never met some of the Koreans out there who can speak English without having their tongues mutilated [quote via Gusts of Popular Feeling]:

    Linguists 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.

    “O.K., 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 Lee Ho Young, a linguist at Seoul National University.

    The real problem for South Koreans, as for Japanese, is that their languages make no distinction between Ls and Rs, so they cannot detect the difference, Lee said.


    Another strange quotation: An 2003 article on the Al-Jazeera English language site contains a quote from a South Korean psychiatrist who claims this surgery is bad because trying to teach young children to learn a second language can apparently cause autism.

    Dr Shin Min-sup, a professor at Seoul National University who specialises in issues of adolescent psychiatry, is worried about the trend for surgery and also for pushing young children too hard to learn languages.

    “There’s the potential for life-damaging after-effects,” Shin said. “Learning a foreign language too early, in some cases, may not only cause a speech impediment but, in the worst case, make an child autistic.”

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