How Far Would You Go?‎

As babies grow up and develop language skills, they lose the ability to hear and produce sounds that aren’t used in their native language. This typically happens between 8 and 10 months, and it’s one of the things that makes it so difficult to learn a new language as an adult. However, with practice, most people can re-learn how to make these sounds as part of their language lessons.

Unfortunately, for British teenager Rhiannon Brooksbank-Jones, perfection remained elusive even after years of practice in Korean. The problem? She was quite literally “tongue tied.” Rhiannon had a condition called “ankyloglossia,” in which the frenulum that attaches the tongue to the bottom of the mouth is too short and/or too thick. There aren’t many statistics available on how common it is, but a study done at Southhampton General Hospital found that about 10% of babies born at that hospital were affected. The condition sometimes resolves by itself in early childhood, but at Rhiannon’s age, the only option was surgery.

Learning Korean was more than just a school assignment for Rhiannon- she is passionate about the language and culture and intends to move to the country after graduation. So,the decision to go under the knife was apparently an easy one. She told the Daily Mail:

“I’d been learning Korean for about two years, and my speaking level is now high, but I was really struggling with particular sounds. ‘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. My pronunciation was very ‘foreign’, but now I can speak with a native Korean accent. The surgical procedure was my only option. It’s not like you can stretch your tongue otherwise. I just decided enough was enough.”

The operation, an outpatient procedure done under local anesthetic, was initially quite painful but healed quickly. She described it as “like having a tooth pulled.”

How far would you go to learn another language?

3 replies
  1. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    The first sentence in this article made me stop. “As babies grow up and develop language skills, they lose the ability to hear and produce sounds that aren’t used in their native language.”
    The reality is that babies don’t lose that ability at all, as can be evidenced by the fact that if they are put into a new linguistic environment they will quickly pick up the new sounds and melodies. What actually happens is that they have stopped experimenting with sounds and that they have now focus only on the sounds that they hear in their environment.
    Some of you may think I am pedantic, but this distinction is important as the variation I provided doesn’t limit what babies can do, whilst the one provided above does.
    And that is exactly the same mistake that is made when people talk about adult language learners. The reality is that adults have enormous capacity to sound native like in a new language. One reason that many adult learners don’t end up sounding native like is that they go about it in the wrong way. There are are of course other reasons, but this one is the one that most people don’t talk about. Hence my interest in raising it.

  2. Aleks
    Aleks says:

    I think the ability to learn a foreign language as an adult is much bigger than we think. The big difference between children and adults is, that children are less aware of their self and how they come accross, and they just start talking new words they learned, no matter how ridiculous or wrong they sound. Adults are used to rationalize more, learn grammar, learn things into perfection, but using the newly learned language less often.

    When it comes to pronunciation, I think we have a great potential to sound like a native in any language, but this means that we have to produce sounds, which sound very ridiculous in our ears and which take effort to produce. Perhaps it is simply more convenient to talk with an accent for most people, and easier.


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  1. […] The Virtual Linguist dissected favour versus favours and words from Pygmalion that were once considered scandalous. The Dialect Blog spoke about the Anglo-Indian dialect, while K International wondered how far one would go to learn another language. […]

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