Tongue-Tied Korean on the Chopping Block

by Translation Guy on September 5, 2011

Serious about learning a foreign language? Serious enough to spend some time in the language lab working on your pronunciation? That’s more serious than most, at least among the language students I know (myself included). But let’s raise the ante. Are you serious enough to put your tongue on the chopping block to nail your second language pronunciation?

Korean language student Rhiannon [ree-an-uhn] Brooksbank-Jones put her money where her mouth was when she got her tongue surgically lengthened as part of her study of the language. The 19-year-old British student found certain Korean sounds to be real tongue-twisters, due to her shorter-than-average frenulum, which is the flap that connects the underside of the tongue to the floor of the mouth.

Ugh. Telling this story makes my mouth water, and not in a good way. My frenulum [fren-yuh-luhm] is experiencing separation anxiety.

Surgeons took the knife to Rhiannon, performing a lingual frenectomy, during which the flap is sliced open, lengthening her tongue by a centimeter. Apparently it hurts like hell for the first few weeks.

Rhiannon spoke to the Daily Mail: “I’d been learning Korean for about two years, and my speaking level is now high, but I was really struggling with . . . the Korean letter ‘L’, which is very frequent and comes from a slightly higher place in the mouth than the English ‘L’. . . . My pronunciation was very ‘foreign’, but now I can speak with a native Korean accent. For me it was an important thing, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and if I can’t do it perfectly, it really irritates me.”

The 20-minute procedure was covered by insurance, since an unusually thick lingual frenulum can leave sufferers tongue-tied with a condition known as Ankyloglossia [ang-kuh-loh-glaw-see-uh] (picture here). Easy to imagine that her folks favored it over a tongue piercing, since it’s a lot more useful. Her mother said, “When she sets her mind to something, she usually goes for it wholeheartedly, and this was no different.”

It seems clear that surgery for language study has additional benefits beyond better pronunciation. Now everyone, including Rhiannon, knows she is dead serious. “I think this will show real dedication. It will prove I’m not just going to drop out after a year.”

You know, that’s what modification does to a body. Piercings and tattoos show commitment, a kind of public demonstration that you are ready to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.

At least that’s what the guys in marketing say about their tattoos.  Recently, I made the mistake of questioning some of the artistic choices made by my staff.  “Why Harley Davidson, Vince? Why not 1-800-Translate? Our customer satisfaction index is much higher.” That turned out to be the wrong question. “You first, boss.”  It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would, since they waited until I was passed out. As a manager, it was a real teaching moment. What did you learn, Tiger?  I learned I should be suspicious when my staff starts paying for shots.

I think the other cool thing about this is that Rhiannon has branded herself as an ultra-serious student of the Korean language, in hopes of a career pay-off down the line.  So far, almost 100,000 hits on Google. Pretty good start, but Rhiannon, Vince and I think you need more play in Korean on the Web. When/if you are in NYC, come by the office to give me a Korean pronunciation lesson, and Vince and I will give you a big push on the Hangugeo Web.


  1. You know, her parents must be proud- she is dedicated to what she wants to do, and is determined to get there. Good for her, I hope it takes her places!

  2. Adam says:

    As a parent I am disturbed that they would let their child do this. Would they let her get cosmetic surgery as well? It is irrelevant whether insurance covered it or not.

  3. Arlene Orr says:

    Never heard of this: the part of the body, the type of surgery, that it was even possible! Thanks for enlightening us!

  4. People do all sorts of other crazy things to their bodies. This at least seems useful. Don’t be so quick to judge!

  5. Roger Rankin says:

    Gives a whole new meaning to ‘tongue-twisters’, don’t it?

  6. frenulum, frenectomy, Ankyloglossia, now I am really tongue-twisted!

  7. What an interesting story! Ken, you never fail to surprise me!

  8. tongue surgery to improve learning a second language?? that seems a little too much!

  9. Honey Bunch says:

    I think learning another language is wonderful, and the goal is to be able to communicate with people. I don’t think a perfect accent is a necessity.

  10. Brooke Brady says:

    There must be tons of jokes just waiting to be told about this!

    • Ken says:

      We’re waiting, Brooke.

  11. bowhunter says:

    I hope this will not be a precedent to others learning a foreign tongue.

  12. Elizabeth says:

    now about those tatoos… do tell, do you have any?

    • Ken says:

      Isn’t enough that I bare my soul on this blog, Elizabeth? Now must I drop my drawers (boxers) as well?

  13. SalothSar says:

    How we communicate with others from a different culture has much more to do with understanding social cues and expressions and not so much to do with a perfect accent.

  14. ben says:

    dude, mark said it right back then

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