South Korea

Tongue tied

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 October, 2003, 12:00am


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The stories about South Korean kids having tongue surgery to help them speak perfect, unaccented English reflect the dark side of South Korean parents' zeal for their children's education.

Some doctors have recently performed the five-minute, 150,000 won (HK$996) procedure on children mostly under 10 years old, whereby they trim 1 to 1.5 cm of the tissue connecting the tongue to the bottom of the mouth to increase flexibility. Chances of complications are minimal, but the surgery does not eliminate the need for lengthy language training.

South Koreans' passion for educating their children has been the engine of the country's remarkable economic growth in the past decades. But it has become a fanaticism that can do more harm than good to the society.

House prices in southern Seoul's posh Gangnam area have skyrocketed in recent years simply because it has a large number of superior cram schools. From kindergarten, children attend several cram schools every day to learn English, math, science and other subjects. At middle and high schools, students study even harder to get into good universities.

Among high school seniors, there is a saying that four hours of sleep a day will lead to success in college entrance exam, but five hours of sleep will bring failure.

Sadly, such an exhausting education system does not make South Korean students smarter. Graduates from top South Korean colleges do not perform any better in the workplace than those from regular schools. At work, South Korean graduates - trained simply to memorise information for tests - lag behind those with foreign educations who were taught to think creatively.

That bitter realisation is behind a recent push in South Korea to learn English. Kids are being sent overseas for English education. Some fathers live alone and lonely in South Korea, while their kids are overseas, with their mothers looking after them. The so-called 'geese fathers' have become a serious social problem, since some of them face financial or marital problems.

The tongue surgery is limited to children in a few wealthy families in southern Seoul. But they happen to be the business, political and social leaders of South Korea. What they do may soon be copied by many ordinary people.

Children might speak better English after surgery, but they may also have greater difficulty in finding faith in their country and fellow citizens.