Going to any lengths to speak Korean

In 2011, I read the following story in the free commuter newspaper on Sydney’s trains, posted it in the discussion forum of one of my Masters subjects and saved it for future reference. (The title of this blog post is taken from the newspaper.)

“A [sic] English uni student had surgery to lengthen her tongue so she could speak better Korean.
Rhiannon Brooksbank-Jones, 19, dreams of living and working in South Korea, even though she has never visited the country.
But while taking language lessons, she found she couldn’t pronounce certain crucial sounds in the Korean alphabet.
Her dentist [nb!] suggested it may be because she was born with a slightly shorter than average tongue.
Rhiannon decided to have an operation to correct the previously untroubling condition.
As a result, self-professed perfectionist Rhiannon’s tongue is now about 1 cm longer, and she can say words that were impossible before.
Rhiannon, of Beeston, Nottingham, said: “Some might say it’s extreme, but … for me, it was like having a tooth pulled.” ”

At the time I made the following comments on the discussion forum:

“1) My experience is that the problematic sounds in Korean for English speakers have nothing to do with the tongue. They are 5 “tensed” consonants, the l/r sound, and a high back unrounded vowel and a combination of that with another vowel. Of these, only the l/r sound could possibly be said to involve the tongue.

2) I’ve read that some Korean parents are paying for their children to undergo surgery so that they can speak English better.

3) An internet search reveals 10,200 hits for this young woman’s name, so it has been widely reported. The top 4 results are for Australian msn/channel 9, and the Telegraph, Daily Mail and Mirror in the UK. (Further down the page is a report from a source in Albania!)

4) Postscript. The Telegraph report includes: “It became apparent after a little while that I was having trouble with the Korean letter ‘L’, which is very frequent and comes from a slightly higher place in the mouth than the English ‘L’, and that my tongue was too short.  The surgical procedure was my only option. My pronunciation was very ‘foreign’, but now I can speak with a native Korean accent.” ”

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2 thoughts on “Going to any lengths to speak Korean

  1. According to the sources I’ve been able to find, the Korean l/r sound is an alveolar flap or tap, theoretically similar to the sound General American English has in ‘rider’ or ‘writer’. But to me there’s a difference: when I say ‘rider’ or ‘writer’ American-style, the sides of my tongue touch my side teeth, and my whole mouth is momentarily blocked. When I (attempt to) say the Korean sound, the sides of my touch don’t touch my side teeth, just as they don’t when I say English ‘l’. Either way, I can’t see that this is about the shape of the tongue, but rather how you use it.

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