Issues | LEARNING CURVE

The war on katakana starts at school

by Baye McNeil

Special To The Japan Times

I remember setting up a lesson for some second-year junior high school students a few years back. It was all rote by then; I had been teaching pretty much the same lesson for six years running. This time, though, I was teaching alongside a Japanese teacher who was new to the school.

In class, I introduced a few vocabulary words to the kids. Over the course of my tenure as an English teacher in Japan I had slowly and reluctantly shifted from the Samuel L. Jackson school of pronunciation discipline (“Add that ‘O’ sound to ‘bat’ again. Go ahead, I dare you! I double dare you!”) to an almost passive acceptance that, minus spending time overseas immersed in an English environment, my students had little hope of reversing the damaging effect katakana had on their speaking ability.

Katakana is the Japanese alphabet used for words that are foreign in origin. And two hours per month spent listening to my Brooklyn accent wasn’t going to offset the 12 hours per month they spent in an English class run by a Japanese teacher who used katakana constantly, not to mention living in a country submerged in it. So, little by little, I surrendered to what I thought was the inevitable and focused primarily on teaching grammar.

But this newbie sensei was having none of that.

I introduced a new word, exaggerating the pronunciation, showing them more of the inner workings of my mouth than anyone beside my dentist should be subjected to. Maybe two or three students repeated it properly, but the demeanor of the other 35 kids communicated a combination of “He does realize we’re Japanese, right?” and “That’s some shoddy dental work you’ve got there, McNeil-sensei.”

So they katakana-ized my words, almost as if they thought that was what they’d heard.

And, I just let it go.

That’s when Newbie-sensei jumped in. She forwent the lesson plan and began to drill the kids a few more times, explaining to them, in Japanese, little pronunciation tricks she’d picked up herself on the path to fluency.

She did what I had — over time — resolved to do less and less: She took the time to actually teach the class to speak English. I stood to the side in a state of astonishment. After the class, she spoke to me in private and apologized for taking over my lesson, promising we’d make up for lost time at a later date.

“But I feel very strongly that katakana has no place in English instruction,” she chided. “English teachers in Japan cannot afford to let pronunciation slip by the wayside. And katakana English is our national nemesis! Without the ability to speak English properly, Japan will fall behind other countries in many fields.”

Her passion not only revived the Sam Jackson in me, but also got me considering the practicality of eliminating katakana from language study altogether.

Foreign loanwords are so prevalent in communication these days that a 71-year-old in Gifu Prefecture tried to sue NHK in June for mental distress over the national broadcaster’s excessive use of them. Major corporations such as Rakuten, Uniqlo and Honda have adopted English as their official language, and the government has announced plans to start teaching English as early as third grade by 2020.

On top of the harm katakana is doing to pronunciation, a good portion of the foreign loanwords do not have the same meaning as their English equivalents — if they ever did. If someone here was to go overseas and say they live in a manshon (apartment), for example, they could find themselves with a string of suitors who’d dump them on realizing they were not lord or lady of the manor.

Robert Campbell, a professor of Japanese literature at the University of Tokyo, says translating the plethora of English sounds into the smaller range offered by katakana is like “taking a thousand items and trying to put them into 100 little baskets. They’re just not going to fit. You’re going to end up having this enormous ambiguity.

“Katakana, however, serves as a sort of bridge between foreign languages and Japanese, and kind of pulls the foreign word halfway across by putting the word into sounds which are similar to the English.”

The task of assisting students the rest of the way across this bridge often falls to instructors. Whether we like it or not, a battle is underway and teachers are on the front lines fighting an entrenched adversary.

Ella McCann, a teacher with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme in Chiba for the past two years, has a more nuanced take on katakana.

“It can be frustrating for me as a native English speaker when I’m trying to pronounce a word and it gets katakana-ized,” McCann says. “It defeats the point of me emphasizing how to enunciate certain words. But, I find it difficult to imagine katakana would ever be eliminated.”

Victor Boggio, a long-term resident and owner and operator of Action! Language Academy in Nagoya, agrees.

“When the pronunciation is so bad that people can’t understand you, it does get in the way of fluency,” he says. “But I don’t think that’s the biggest problem. The greatest obstacles to Japanese gaining fluency in English are students being taught that there is only one way to say something, combined with a psychological fear of making mistakes.”

Non-Japanese teachers aren’t alone in this battle by any means; their native counterparts are in the trenches with them. But some find themselves in an ambiguous position when it comes to the use of katakana pronunciation in the classroom. Often the choice before Japanese instructors teaching English pronunciation is between using katakana as an aid on one hand, and on the other, having students feel discouraged from trying because of their lack of comprehension of the English alphabet and its various pronunciations. Faced with that scenario, many educators will opt to go with katakana.

Ikui Suzuki, a veteran English teacher of 25 years in Yokohama, believes that despite its drawbacks, the cost of eliminating katakana from English teaching would be extremely high and the children would pay the price.

“I don’t think using katakana is a good way to learn real English pronunciation either,” Suzuki says, “but for slow learners who cannot read the alphabet at all, they need to see the katakana letters to participate in the lessons. Without them, these students would not be able to participate at all.”

Takahiro Muroda, also an English teacher in Yokohama, agrees.

“I don’t want to use katakana when I’m teaching but some students can’t read English without it,” he says. “Many Japanese junior high school students hate English because they have to remember words, difficult grammar and get good scores on tests.”

While eliminating katakana’s use as a pronunciation aide would benefit Japanese students’ ability to communicate, due to its ingrained nature, that clearly can’t be achieved overnight. However, I still think it’s worth putting up a faito.

Baye McNeil is a blogger, writer and author of two books about life in Japan. For more info, visit his website at www.locoinyokohama.com. Send comments and ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.