November 04, 2003

Reuters: early bilingualism causes autism

Via Language Geek, a Reuters story about "a surprising number"of Korean parents who subject their kids to a frenotomy, cutting 1 to 1.5 cm from the strap of tissue linking the tongue to the floor of the mouth, allegedly in order to "help them perfect their English".

Ankyloglossia ("tongue tie") is a recognized medical condition, for which frenotomy is indicated, but it seems nothing short of preposterous to suppose that this condition would affect speaking English but not speaking Korean.

However, the article cites some negative reactions that are even more hair-raising:

Dr. Shin Min-sup, a professor at Seoul National University who specializes in issues of adolescent psychiatry, is worried about the trend for surgery and also for pushing young children too hard to learn languages.

"There's the potential for life-damaging after-effects," Shin said. "Learning a foreign language too early, in some cases, may not only cause a speech impediment but, in the worst case, make an child autistic."

"What's wrong with speaking English with an accent anyway? Many parents tend to discount the importance of a well-rounded education," Shin said.

So a psychiatrist from Seoul National University is quoted as saying that early bilingualism causes speech impediments and autism, and is also incompatible with a well-rounded education.

Words fail me.

OK. As a working hypothesis, I'd start with the idea that the anonymous Reuters journalist who wrote this article is guilty of criminal quote-mangling. But it's possible that Dr. Shin Min-sup actually said that stuff, in which case the journalist is merely in need of an emergency infusion of common sense. I mean, how can you get to be a Reuters reporter -- writing in English from Korea -- without noticing that kids grow up speaking several languages without developing speech impediments or autism or unbalanced education at an unusual rate?

I'd like to be able to say that this story shows why journalists should be required to take a good introductory linguistics course. However, the writer's failure to apply elementary reasoning to general world knowledge suggests that more eduation would probably just give him or her more stuff to get confused about.

Read the whole thing (sigh)... or in the UK or French versions, which list Kim Kyoung-wha as the author.

[Note: as usual in cases of apparent journalistic malfeasance, the guilty party may in fact be an editor who deleted essential material or "improved the prose" in ways that changed its meaning. [or substituted a completely different story - ed.] If that's true, I apologize to Kim and transfer all the above complaints to the Reuters editor. Who is guilty at least of failing to notice the article's idiocy, if nothing else.]

[Update: There is indeed someone named Min-sup Shin in the department of Neuropsychiatry at Seoul National University. That doesn't mean that the quotes are valid, of course.]

[Update 11/7/2003: It's occurred to me that the Reuters article doesn't offer any evidence that frenotomies are really rampant in South Korea. One doctor is quoted as saying that he performs the procedure "once or twice" a month, and that only "ten or twenty percent" of parental inquiries lead to surgery. Taking this at face value, it gives us a yearly total of 12-24 surgeries and 60-240 inquiries. Now, maybe there are dozens of other doctors and thousands of inquiring parents. Or maybe this is the one guy who's the frenotomy specialist, and he's boosting his stats, and we're talking about 10-15 surgeries and 50-60 inquiries a year, mostly medically valid or at least not connected to crazed parents frantically pushing English.

In that case, why would it be news? Well, plausibly, because it's a thump in the nose to globalization and (implicitly) to the U.S. The truly odd quote from the psychiatrist is consistent with this. Reuters has been accused of an anti-American bias more than once recently, with some apparent justification.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 4, 2003 08:27 PM