“What is AI doing on the pronunciation front?”

In May 2023, HYBE, a prominent South Korean music company, harnessed AI technology to assist MIDNATT, a K-pop artist. He managed to record his latest song titled “Masquerade” in six different languages: his native Korean; plus Chinese, English, Japanese, Spanish, and Vietnamese – none of which he speaks more than a smattering of!

MIDNATT, also known as Lee Hyun, initially recorded the song in all six languages, using his less-than-perfect pronunciation. Native speakers then recorded the lyrics, after which AI technology seamlessly integrated the authentic pronunciation into Lee’s singing.

Many Koreans will be relieved to know that AI can sort out linguistic problems. Below is a shocking report from 2004 in the UK newspaper The Independent. The article was subsequently removed from the newspaper’s website.

Seoul tries to shock parents out of linguistic surgery

In South Korea’s society of lofty aspirations, mastery of the English language is so highly prized that ambitious parents are forcing their children to have painful tongue surgery in order to give them perfect pronunciation.

The operation, which involves snipping the thin tissue under the tongue to make it longer and supposedly more nimble, has become so common that the government has produced a film in an effort to shock parents into shunning the practice. The film, made by the National Human Rights Commission, shows a woman taking her son to a clinic so that he can perform flawlessly in his kindergarten’s English language Christmas play. The boy screams as she and the nurses hold him down, with his brother insisting: “It’s all for his future.” The procedure is often carried out on children under the age of five.

Parents in South Korea, a highly competitive society obsessed with education, already go to great lengths to provide their children with a head start in learning English. They play their children nursery rhymes in the womb, hire expensive tutors for toddlers, and send pre-school children to the US for sought after American accents.

The surgery craze took off because of a perception that Asian people find it difficult to pronounce ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds. However, doctors ridicule the idea that the Korean tongue is too short or inflexible to cope with the English language, saying that practice – not an operation – is required.

Learning English is a national fixation in South Korea. Psychologists say that small children face intolerable pressures, with infants sitting in front of English teaching videos for up to five hours a day.

Cha Kyoung-ae, an English professor at a Seoul university, said: “English is now becoming a means of survival. Entering a college, getting jobs and getting promoted – many things hinge heavily on your mastery of English. The surgery may be an extreme case, but it reflects a social phenomenon.”

Source: The Independent, 3 January 2004

Image of frenectomy: https://www.atlantaperiodontics.com/frenectomy/frenectomy-tongue-tied/

Adrian Wallwork