On Rhiannon Brooksbank-Jones’ Tongue Surgery

I must admit, as someone who’s been teaching Koreans English for a decade now (more, if you include the Koreans in my classes at Concordia University in Montreal). I’m extremely dubious about this:

Student Rhiannon Brooksbank-Jones dreams of living and working in South Korea once she finishes university, even though she has never visited the country.

But while taking language lessons, the 19-year-old found that she couldn’t pronounce certain crucial sounds in the Korean alphabet.

Her dentist suggested it may be because she was born with a slightly shorter than average tongue, caused by having an unusually thick lingual frenulum – the flap of skin that joins the underside of the tongue to the floor of the mouth.

After discussing the matter with her parents and language tutor, Rhiannon decided to undergo an operation to correct the condition, despite the fact it has never caused her any problems in speaking English.

She underwent a lingual frenectomy, which involves making an incision in the flap of skin. As a result, Rhiannon’s tongue is now about 1cm longer, and she can say words that were impossible before.

Yeah, well, she says so. I’d like to hear her say 닭볶음밥  before taking her word for it, though.

There are a few things that struck me about this:

  • First, the idea of someone’s tongue length being an impediment for learning a foreign language — when it did not impede their speech in their native tongue — is both pretty dubious as a first-cause explanation, and a myth that is extremely widespread in Korea. When I first read this, I assumed it was her Korean tutor (or a Korean professor) who put the idea into her head, and I can’t help but wonder whether her dentist (who suggested it) might be Korean — or whether maybe she picked up the idea from a Korean and suggested it herself to the dentist.While some people do have speech impediments resolvable with a lingual frenectomy, I don’t think Korean speech requires a particularly lengthier tongue than English… and, indeed, neither do plenty of Koreans believe this: quite the opposite, in fact! It was (and maybe still is, I don’t know) common mythology here that most Koreans have a naturally shorter tongue which inhibits English pronunciation; this led to a whole mini-industry of doctors hacking up kids’ tongues which, at least a decade ago, was doing a brisk business. A great mini-dramatization of it — at least, I think it’s a dramatization — is included in the excellent National Human Rights Commission-funded short film anthology If You Were Me. (The first one.)In any case: I imagine there are at least a number of Koreans who have “short tongues” and they all seem to speak their mother tongue fine, just as Ms. Brooksbank-Jones speaks hers fine.

    However, it is quite ironically funny that she got a surgery for the same reasons so many Korean kids had them forced upon them: because it was supposed to help her cross the pronunciation divide between English and Korean.

  • It doesn’t sound quite creditable that, suddenly, after a surgery, she’d be able to pronounce things she couldn’t pronounce before.Acquiring a foreign language is tough for as few reasons. One of the most frustrating is pronunciation, and that is because it’s basically something that gets wired in when your a baby — during the babbling you do when you’re alone, after a day of hearing human beings speak.Obviously, your babbling — which is a kind of practicing of the sounds you’ve heard —  doesn’t usually include sounds or patterns you haven’t heard that day, and you lose your aural sensitivity to sound patterns you haven’t heard as well. (This is, evolutionarily speaking, why adults talk to kids so much, even when the kids are babies and cannot understand or respond; we’re building up the bricks of language competency phoneme by phoneme, at that stage.) So just as plenty of my students struggle to differentiate L from R, or J from Z, plenty of Westerners struggle trying to hear the difference between 방 and 빵, or 장 and 짱. (And pronouncing those right is not something that seems to be related to tongue length, if you ask me.)For the record, I still sometimes get those consonants wrong occasionally, after almost ten years. I don’t practice much, but I use them often enough. And the truth is, lots of Koreans aren’t all dainty and careful about it — just as some of us Anglos speak with a drawl or mush our vowels, some Koreans mix around, mumble through liaisons that are important for comprehension (is this kid asking his mom for something delicious, or a something to drink?), and sometimes blur between a single and double-consonant. Hell, a lot of people seem to mumble all the time, and they all seem to understand one another. If they can make themselves understood while barely opening their mouths…
  • Finally, um:
    Image Source here.

    Maybe this girl has actually studied enough about Korea to being doing this other than naively. Sure, she sounds overly-credulous about what her church friends have told her:

    ‘In Korea they like good students, and I think having my tongue lengthened will be a real help with the course, especially during my year in Seoul.

    ‘I’d love to live and work in Korea one day and being able to speak perfectly will really benefit me.

    ‘Native English speakers can earn quite a lot of money in Korea, so that’s another option.’

    … but I mean, tell me that image doesn’t just smack of marketing to Korean guys?

    While I made an off-the-cuff prognostication about her future that I don’t think is necessarily realistic (or fit to write here) Miss Jiwaku got it right off the bat:
    “She’s gonna be a celebrity here, on TV. Like, ‘I love Korea so much, I got my tongue surgery so I could speak Korean!’; and they’ll have Dokdo behind her, and she’ll always be in a miniskirt.”

    I think she’s right: the makers of Misuda are drooling and rubbing their hands together — think Mr. Burns on the Simpsons. The only ting this girl could have done to ensure that more would have been to talk about Dokdo, or to proclaim, ” I love Korea, and want to marry a Korean man!”

    Hell, maybe if the biracial pop group thing I mentioned last week works out, they’ll even get the gumption to put together a new girl group called something like 백마 or 백년 1 or something?

Not to rain on her parade. It’s fine to be into a foreign language and culture. Maybe she is one of those rare souls who did need it and somehow nobody noticed when she was pronouncing English funny all these years. Maybe she’s being smart and calculated all of this and is fast-tracking her way to white-celebrity-in-Korea status. White girls are nonthreatening, after all, unlike white males, and getting more and more media attention. And she has been going to Korean church, watching Korean TV, and so on… she must know something about some of this stuff, at least.

But as for the tongue surgery, I’m quite dubious. I’d love to hear what a linguist or, better yet, a speech therapist with experience with Korean and Anglo patients would have to say about it. I expect dubiousness from any such specialist too.

Ah well: I wonder what will happen when this young lady gets to Korea. Hmm.

1. 백마 means “white horse” — an old Korean euphemism for having sex with a white woman, as far as I understand it, is to “ride the white horse”; meanwhile, 백년 is a pun on two homophones: “100 years” or “white b*tches”. I rather doubt either name would really be used, though the attitudes of producers, or of audiences, might well match the names I’ve suggested… in all of their unsettling dimensions.

2 thoughts on “On Rhiannon Brooksbank-Jones’ Tongue Surgery

  1. This is exactly what I was thinking when I first heard about her.
    Isn’t this crazy?
    I mean Korean kids have surgery to lengthen their tongues to pronounce English better and she did exactly the opposite.
    It doesn’t make sense.
    I can’t believe she can speak her ㄹ better now.
    I think she is a scapegoat or something.
    I hope she ‘REALLY’ is happy with what she did.

  2. Dreamer,

    Yeah, it is crazy. I kind of think the first thing everyone studying a foreign language should be taught is how we actually acquire languages naturally (as children) vs. artificially (as adults), so that they are less prone to believing silly things like this, and wasting time, money, or morale on them.

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