That is the hope that recently drove one mother to take her six-year-old son for surgery aimed at ridding him of his Korean accent when speaking the language of choice in global business.

Driven by a desire to give their kids an edge in an increasingly competitive society, a surprising number of South Koreans have turned to the knife in a seemingly drastic bid to help their offspring perfect their English.

"Those who have a short frenulum (a strap of tissue linking the tongue to the floor of the mouth) can face problems pronouncing some characters due to a disturbance in lateral movements of the tongue," said Bae Jung-ho, an oral surgeon at Seoul's Yonsei Severance Hospital, who operated on the six-year-old last month.

Bae said it takes about five minutes to complete the operation, called a frenotomy, which slices one to 1.5 cm off the frenulum to make the tongue more flexible.

"There is a razor-thin risk of complications and, unless it is the best option possible, we don't recommend it."

"I think it's gross. Mutilating children's tongues is not the solution. If a parent takes his child into the surgery and then, if the child is still unable to speak unaccented English, what would that do to the child's self-esteem?"

Robin Bulman,
American living in Seoul

Bae said that he had received many inquiries about the operation, mostly for children aged between 12 months and 10 years. Of these, only 10 to 20% had led to surgery.

The doctor said he performed the surgery, which costs 150,000 won ($127), once or twice per month.

For a tangible improvement for those with ankyloglossia - the medical term for those with a short frenulum - months of language training is needed even after surgery.

"It takes time to see pronunciation actually improve as picking up a language or saying it properly is a complicated process to master," he added.

Excessive enthusiasm

Using surgery to enhance your looks is already very common in South Korea, where many resort to plastic surgery to make their eyes bigger, noses shapelier and even their calves slimmer.

In the case of tongue surgery, many psychologists, professors and native English speakers argue that there are many downsides.

Dr Shin Min-sup, a professor at Seoul National University who specialises 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.

"English is now becoming a means of survival" 

Cha Kyoung-ae
English professor

Robin Bulman, an American living in Seoul who has an adopted five-year-old Korean daughter, felt that surgery might hurt a child's self-confidence.

"I think it's gross. Mutilating children's tongues is not the solution. If a parent takes his child into the surgery and then, if the child is still unable to speak unaccented English, what would that do to the child's self-esteem?"

Bulman says her daughter speaks perfect English, admittedly with a strong Montana accent.

"If there's just some real problem with Koreans speaking English, a physiological problem with their bodies, how can a pure Korean child speak perfect English?"

Growing foreign participation 

You would be hard-pressed to find a country that is more feverish in its attempts to learn English than South Korea.

From toddlers to students to office workers, learning English has become a national obsession.

The focus on English surged after the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis rocked South Korea's economy, Asia's fourth-largest, throwing a record number of people out of work.

"There is a razor-thin risk of complications and, unless it is the best option possible, we don't recommend it."

Bae Jung-ho, 
oral surgeon, Yonsei Severance Hospital

Financial markets were subsequently flung open and foreign investment flowed in, creating a need for communication.

"English is now becoming a means of survival," said Cha Kyoung-ae, a professor who teaches English at a local university.

"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," said Cha. "When it comes to language, money
and prestige speak louder."

Many Koreans believe an early start in English could give their children an edge and so do not hesitate to send them overseas or at least to evening classes.

Central bank data show that spending for overseas study by South Koreans, including those who leave purely for a language course, jumped to $1.43 billion in 2002 from $960 million in 2000.

The number of people leaving the country to study is also on the rise. Nearly 344,000 Koreans departed last year, up sharply on a figure of about 200,000 in 1999.