April 21, 2004

The politics of tongue cutting

Iggy at Blogalization comments on a story in Vocabula Review by Richard Leder that mentions the alleged South Korean mania for performing frenotomies (a kind of tongue surgery) on children to help them learn English.

The frenotomy story first came out in Reuters last October. At the time, I observed that the procedure is sometimes indicated to correct ankyloglossia, a condition that has nothing to do with learning English, and 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 the same post , I noted that the Reuters story featured a truly bizarre (alleged) quote from a psychiatrist at Seoul National University, to the effect that the whole idea of teaching children English is a bad idea, because "[l]earning a foreign language too early, in some cases, may not only cause a speech impediment but, in the worst case, make an child autistic."

After thinking about this a bit more, I suggested that the Reuters story, like the recently infamous BBC frog sex muddle, was probably not plain vanilla bad science reporting, but rather bad science reporting motivated by a political agenda. In the case of the BBC frog story, the goal was apparently to highlight environmental issues; in the case of the Reuters frenotomy story, I hypothesized that the motivation was to give "a thump in the nose to globalization and (implicitly) to the U.S." Iggy's post at Blogalization appears to swallow the same political bait hook, line and sinker when he writes:

I'm reminded of Susanna George's presentation at the III World Social Forum in Porto Alegre:

Susanna George of the Philippines, representing the feminist network ISIS, expressed deep skepticism about the possibility of reforming global media, dramatizing the “tragedy” of cultural homogenization, which, for example, “drives Asian women to undergo surgery to transform their brown nipples into the pink nipples of Western women.”

To cite another example, so-called “world music” represents “a homogenization of cultural difference, a mind-numbing dilution of cultural values aimed at mostly American consumers that shames people from what is indigenous,” George said.

Q.E. (alas) D. -- though in fairness to Iggy, I can't tell if he is quoting Susanna George because he thinks her comments are a sensible frame for the frenotomy story, or because he thinks that they are not.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 21, 2004 11:36 AM