Aug. 15, 2011 at 2:05 PM ET
A British teenager was so desperate to speak the Korean language with the proper accent that she had a surgery that lengthened her tongue, reports The Telegraph. Wait. What?
Nineteen-year-old student Rhiannon Brooksbank loves Korean culture and plans to study it in college. Her only problem: She struggled to correctly pronounce certain sounds in the Korean language, because of her shorter-than-average tongue, "caused by an unusually thick lingual frenulum – the flap of skin that joins the underside of the tongue to the floor of the mouth," the UK paper reports. More from The Telegraph:
Her parents agreed to her having a lingual frenectomy, a 15–minute operation under local anaesthetic that involved an incision in the flap of skin. Rhiannon admitted that it was "agony at first" but her tongue is now about 1cm longer and she can say words that were impossible before.
So is surgery the answer to shaking an unwanted accent? Not exactly, explains Dr. Amee P. Shah, associate professor and research director in Cleveland State University's speech and hearing program. Brooksbank likely had a condition called ankyloglossia, often nicknamed "tongue-tie," because it restricts the tongue's movement, keeping it tethered too close to the lower jaw -- which can result in in a number of speech problems, says Shaw.
Although Shah has not treated Brooksbank, she expects the teenager didn't just have problems correctly pronouncing Korean words -- she likely has had problems pronouncing English words, too. Shah explains that a "tongue-tied" person would have trouble pronouncing all vowels, and especially the consonants that are formed using the front and the top of the mouth, like T, D, L, R, S, Z, N and Y. But there's nothing unique about the Korean language that would require a lingual frenectomy. The Korean language doesn't "have an 'L' and 'R' distinction the way we do, but they do have a version that sounds like 'L' or 'R,' depending on the situation," Shah says. "They do have the vowels 'e' and 'ah' -- those would be affected."
The teenager's surgery sounds like an extreme measure, but Shah explains that a lingual frenectomy is actually a very common procedure, normally done in children who are born with a shorter tongue and thicker frenulum. But people like Brooksbank who have the procedure done later in life, usually require speech therapy in addition to the frenectomy to correct the pronunciation habits they've formed over the years to compensate for the shorter tongue.
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