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.

  • Dan Ryan

    This is excellent. Nicely-written summary and analysis of the problem. At
    the American company I worked for in Tokyo in the late ’80s,
    Katakana-ization in spoken English was a frustrating problem which
    sometimes cropped up when Japanese co-workers
    and secretaries and I had to speak English to each other. It wasn’t
    “their” problem or “my” problem, it was OUR problem. It made it hard at
    times for us to understand English words we said to each other, so I can
    relate to your article in that way. It actually brings back some
    pleasant and funny memories of the kinds of communication
    misunderstandings at work that you have a drink and a laugh over later
    at an izakaya.

    And for what it’s worth, Baye, though we’ve only spoken once at length I don’t think your Brooklyn accent is all that bad.

  • Michey Peckitt

    I always enjoy Baye McNeil’s writing in his books and
    blogs. It would be nice to see more of
    him in publications like the Japan Times.

  • I don’t think you can eliminate katakana, when teaching English because you have to have some way of expressing what the pronunciation is of foreign words in your native language. That would be like telling us not to use romanization when studying Japanese for the first time.

    But katakana has to be used with correct English pronunciation as far as possible. That means that students have to understand that certain borrowed words in Japanese are not the correct way of speaking English.

    The worst example of using katakana I saw, and the least helpful for me, was a phrase book for Chinese I bought at Narita airport before heading to Shanghai. Knowing what katakana does to English, you can imagine what it does to Chinese.

    • Jerry Causby

      Barring the little bit of Japanese study I had before going abroad, I was taught Japanese exclusively in Japanese from day one. Thankfully I had a basic grasp of the alphabet, but we were given 1 week to learn gana, and then it was off to Kanji. That was the first (real) week of class in japan. Granted, it was an intensive program, but the pace was extremely fast and relentless. I learned proper Japanese, Japanese pronunciation, and the most powerful skill that I got from that year in Japan was the ability to think in Japanese, instead of translating English. I thankfully had a great group of teachers, but besides that I had what most of my current students lack; a desire to learn a foreign language.

      Back on Topic, I don’t think that the intensity that I endured is something that Japanese school kids could handle. I was an adult, and was focused on learning it. However, I think that there should be a focus on pronunciation. Optimally, I think that phonics should be taught at elementary school, similarly to how kids in America get taught. I think that if students understand where the sounds come from, they will be able to read a lot better, instead of just having to figure it out on their own or memorizing it. If the time was taking at a younger age to enforce phonics, then there would be no need for katakana at all.

      I am dieing to just have my kids have a two week crash course in phonics, and then every class, write non-sense English on the board and have them sound it out. 5 minutes every class throughout Elementary 5-6 to Middle 1-3 and I don’t think there would be any issues with them reading or speaking English. A very difficult pipe dream, I know, but I don’t think it would be that hard to implement.

      • egaode

        I agree. I live in Atlantic Canada and the kids all learn French in school. We start learning how to pronounce French words and the alphabet in elementary school.

    • Ed

      Of course you can eliminate Katakana,
      in China I didn’t teach English using a Chinese written system for foreign loanwords, the kids learned the alphabet, learned phonics and were able to read words and sound out new words. Everything I taught I used English for, everything I wrote was in English and any explanation of a new word was done using English.

      Foreign languages should be taught 100% in the foreign language whenever possible.

      Kids need to learn the alphabet and do phonics so that they learn how to read, sound out individual letters, pairings, cvc words and magic-e etc.
      Katakana is not necessary to learn English. It’s a shortcut for the lazy.

      • Well, I’m not an English teacher. But I still think it is obviously easier for students if they can make memos in a script they know to help them remember the sounds. Like I did when I studied Japanese. That’s why they had kana charts and flashcards, etc. So you can test yourself and see if you remembered correctly. If all my flashcards where JUST in Japanese, I would have been completely lost!

  • phoenix_fire

    When I was learning Japanese, my professor made is learn hiragana/katakana the first few weeks, and then the classes were taught solely with them; the English alphabet was absolutely forbidden. It should be done this way with English classes. it may be difficult at first but it results in learning much more quickly than relying on your native alphabet as a crutch.

    • lordblazer

      I taught english in morocco and this is what I had to do. I had to teach my students the english alphabet. I had to forbid them from using arabic or french words unless somehow it is the same word in english and I had to forbid both arabic and french alphabets. the first month was a rough ride, but after that the students really did improve their language abilities in English. They all passed their BAC exams too.

    • Elliot Patton

      Upvote, as I think that you are partially correct. While I agree that katakana is a pronunciation crutch, English simply has too many vowel sounds to use only the alphabet as a guide, and unlike Japanese, English is an orthographic nightmare, with around 15 unique vowel sounds expressed with only five characters (and sometimes w and y). Most of the best students I’ve taught at Kansai Gaidai have entered with a good knowledge of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Most Japanese students see it in their dictionaries, but a startling number of ALTs have no idea how to use it. It’s an invaluable tool for pronouncing any language, and in my opinion, the JET Program, Interac, and any other organization that brings ALTs into Japan should be required to provide a brief course on it.

    • M Strong

      Agreed. I started Japanese in high school, and we used roomaji for the 6 months (ugh!) it took to learn hiragana, and never went back. Higher standards doesn’t have to mean prestigious literature…

      • BobbyMcBrown

        Woah, 6 months to learn hiragana? It took me 4 days to elarn how to read and write it O_O

    • Jeffrey

      Completely different situation as English over the centuries has absorbed hundreds of sounds for the Roman alphabet. The sounds of the Japanese syllabary can be rendered in English just fine. So, initially Romanizing hiragana doesn’t present long term problems.

      The only way to eliminate the katakana carry over for Japanese learning English, as the Ministry of Education is considering, is to start teaching English well before junior high school.

    • Wildcard Hoss

      I wholeheartedly agree, as when I was learning Japanese our sensei taught is the same way. Yes it was difficult, but those lessons stuck until today.

  • La_Dolce

    I use katakana on occasion, but I make sure to do two things: 1) I’m not afraid to use katakana in ways possibly not intended in order to present the closest approximation to my pronunciation possible (for example, “See you next year!” is not シーユーネキストイヤー but セィーユーネクストイーヤ), in addition to adding alphabet where katakana falls short (specifically S combination words [speed, sleep] and consonant endings), and 2) I tell the kids that “this is pretty close, but not exactly the same, so listen carefully.” My usage depends on the kids — some kids are great without it, and some need it to function on a basic level. Then again, I teach elementary school, so…

    • イェン・ハグ

      One thing I’ve always wondered about elementary school introductions to English–is the alphabet taught as it is in American, and presumably most English-speaking kindergartens? That is to say, are they starting with “a” as “ah” and building up to your “ea”s and “oo”s? If not, then the program’s already behind the Chinese-studying students at my old, backwater elementary school…

      • JapanDad

        They get taught the alphabet in katakana, mostly, by their regular school teachers. That is to say, “a, bee, shee, jee, ee, ehu, jii, ecchi, ai, jee, kay, eru, emu, enu, o, pee.”

        They try their hardest, but they are convinced that their pronunciation is correct – after all, their teacher taught them that way and their teacher’s teacher before them. No matter what the ALT says, the Japanese pronunciation MUST be correct, right? (That’s what my own stepson tells me when I try to teach him English, anyway: but that’s how my teacher taught me!)

        The other thing is that there is an official “Japanese” way of using Latin script that follows the Japanese writing system faithfully – meaning that “sha” is written “sya” in accordance to how kana express it: “しゃ”, or “shi” + “ya” = “sya.” (My stepson actually listened to me on that one, but it did kinda blow his mind when he learned that what he had been taught was “wrong”.)

        Unsurprisingly, this cripples their ability to understand English spelling (or any other language, for that matter) at a young age, and, yes, it leaves them way, way behind other countries.

      • egaode

        I taught English grade 4 and 5 while I was there. It was a pre-arranged textbook and media set, but it did include phonetic pronunciation. “A says “AH!” accompanied by a word and a picture type of thing.

  • L. Taz Hicks

    I enjoyed the article and I agree, Katakana is a big issue.

  • Hatt0ri Hanzou

    Would it help to teach kids the phonetic alphabet of English language sounds
    (the one with 45 or so sounds)? While I was studying English, during
    elementary school, we had to learn and use this alphabet. Maybe it would
    be easier for students, psychologically, to know that there is a
    limited and concrete number of sounds they have to learn. Also, it would be easier for them to isolate and practice sounds they have problems with.

  • Dan Isaksson

    “Many Japanese junior high school students hate English because they have to remember words, difficult grammar and get good scores on tests.”

    In my experience, the same goes for any language. But a more appropriate approach would be to, if they move the classes to as early as third-grade, start with teaching the alphabet thoroughly along with its pronounciation. Katakana will come in the way, and if you’re going to learn pronounciation it’s better to start at an early age. I teach some English at a foreign language school near Kyoto and my students are mostly middle-aged, I try constantly to push pronounciation so that they’ll come to understand just how important it is if they really wish to understand the language. But after reading this article I feel that I need to push it even more, but maybe with different approach.

  • JapanDad

    Funny thing is that – in ANY other topic – math, science, sports – Japanese adults tell the children to QUIT WHINING, buck up, and TRY HARDER. I know, because my own stepkids have soccer practice three times a week, every week, no matter how cold it is – no breaks. No vacations. Constant, unrelenting practice. Half of my son’s friends have had major injuries – one even had surgery because of it. And yet no one batted an eyelash. Ten injured ten-year-olds is a small price to pay for the local TV station’s annual plastic trophy.

    And yet…when a child says, “I’m intimidated by English,” the teachers just say, “Oh, well, ok then. I guess we can’t make you do it. It IS pretty hard, after all!” Huh. Weird how, the second Japanese educators are asked to teach children something foreign (well…more foreign than soccer and baseball…well, I guess something OVERTLY foreign, unlike that sneaky baseball), they suddenly can’t force the kids to actually do it right.

    Which is weird, because, isn’t that what Japan is famous for? Fastidiously practicing something until they get it down perfectly? Yet…English is too hard, and they need katakana as a crutch? It’s almost as if…they just plain don’t want to do it? It’s almost as if, as the world’s third largest economy with the world’s fifth largest military, the people in charge have enough power and privilege within their own borders to just ignore any aspect of the global community they don’t like.

    So, yeah, the article failed to even touch on the rampant ethnocentrism at the core of the katakana issue.

  • John Kang

    I have read research that showed a Japanese baby at 6 months can no longer hear the difference between r and l. By the time they actually start to learn English, there is so much native language interference, their pronunciation will default to kana phonetics– it is what they hear– until someone teaches them to hear and produce the differences.

    I had similar issues when I took French phonetics (and at the same time started taking Mandarin). The u sound in “Tu” in French, produced like the “qu” sound in Mandarin doesn’t exist in English, but I couldn’t hear the difference until I was taught to actually make the sound. Likewise, most native English speakers can’t hear the Japanese ra ri ru re ro.

  • Shin

    I grew up in Switzerland and as far as I can recall, we never had anything other than native English speaking professors. I think that it’s critical for Japan to understand that they ought to hire more native speakers to teach their children, if they really care about the future of Japan.
    Another point that I would like to make is that, when I was a kid, I just wanted to learn English, I was eager to, I was motivated because I thought it was cool and also I knew how valuable it would be for my future. I speak 5 language now and I forgot one that I had spent 7 years of my life learning, German. the reason? I didn’t like it.
    In short, if you want to motivate Japanese children to learn the right pronunciation, you need to teach them to love English first and believe me they will go the extra mile.

    • Jeffrey

      The idea was floated recently of sending prospective English teachers abroad to study. I’ve long felt, since this is required in language programs in U.S. universities, that a junior year abroad should have always been part of the Japanese university English teaching curriculum.

      Then there is the whole issue of why Japanese only study English when prior to WWII schools commonly offered German and French as well. Surely Chinese and Korean are just as important today as English?

      • John L

        I’m a native English teacher living abroad currently, and I can tell when a non-native teacher has lived abroad. Their pronunciation and vocabulary is leaps and bounds above their coworkers who never left the country.

        Also, Japan does hire native Korean teachers, and possibly native Chinese teachers as well. Are they just as important as English? It depends on the individual to determine which language is the most important to them. However English does hold an advantage of being the most universal of the three. It wouldn’t be unheard of for the Japanese English learner to converse with Koreans and Chinese in English.

  • egaode

    They should start every single day with a drill on the alphabet and pronunciation. This is how English children learn, and this is how I was taught hiragana/katakana pronunciation. I can tell you, I will *never* forget the Japanese alphabet as it was drilled into my head every single day for two years. You can’t do anything without that basis.

  • Jeffrey

    One of the best articles I’ve read on what was once a professional frustration for me as well. I got so caught up with it (and had the free time )that I had started to compile a bad loan word/katakana dictionary just for the hell of it.

  • JapanDad

    It’s strange how, in any other subject, Japanese kids are told to quit whining and try harder – math, science, “kokugo” – don’t understand it? Go to juku for hours upon hours with no breaks and study until you get it!

    English? “Teacher, I don’t get this foreign nonsense.” “That’s ok, no one does! Just do it in katakana!”

    This article completely fails to address the ethnocentrism involved in the insistence upon using katakana as a crutch. Aren’t the Japanese famous around the world for their ability to buckle down and fastidiously study until they get something perfect? Why does this talent disappear the second they are asked to teach a “foreign” subject? Baseball is foreign, yet they have no qualms with drilling their children into exhaustion to learn it – why is English different?

    • 6810

      I’m sorry, what? Have you ever set foot inside a school in Japan or is that just a collection of hand-me-down knowledge from “some-guy-who-knows-this-guy-that-one-day…”

      1. All over the world there are kids who hate studying foreign language at school. I was one. Now I’m a translator. Go figure.

      2. I have never heard, nor seen a teacher say “That’s ok, no one does! Just do it in katakana!”. What I have seen is several cases of teachers encouraging writing an equivalent pronunciation for a struggling student who is unable to actually read English. This is a pedagogical, classroom management based decision – what would you prefer? Katakana or a student feeling hopelessly lost, head on the desk or at worst disrupting the other students?

      Japandad, if you are a dad and in Japan I really think you should spend some more time in school understanding where the English (as a foreign language) fits into the broader curriculum and lay off the stereotypes.

  • Greg Demmons

    Sorry, but I taught in Japan for almost 5 years, and if the alphabet is taught properly along with some phonics and lots of listening practice, katakana is not a big problem. There should be no need for the Japanese language to be used in the classroom at all. Relax. Take your time. There is no rush. It may seem like a forever task, but it pays off. My high school students were broken of the habit after a couple of months. We were fortunate in our high school as we were not assistant language teachers, but completely autonomous in our classes.

  • Axio

    I have taught (not in schools, though) French and English for a decade or so in my spare time, for free, mind you. I have always rejected the use of katakanas, and I scold whoever uses them. The main reason being that their brain will process words in katakana instead of processing them in English, whether they have acquired it or not.
    I also do a lot of drawings and faces to show them how to shape their lips and tongues so that they can make the sound I want them to make. I also put their hands on my throat to feel the motion (if any).
    And when they say “it’s difficult” or “I can’t,” I tell them that of course they shouldn’t expect to be able to make sounds they’ve never made after just 10 seconds of trying. But so far, ten minutes has proven enough for me to teach any sound of French or English. Your students’ voices are instruments, and they always play the same notes. It’s your job to have them *try* to play new notes, and to shout “that’s it!” when they get it right.

    And it would also greatly help if you got rid of your Brooklyn accent when you ever speak Japanese (assuming you have one), so as to show that it works both ways. This is even more important as you are a model in the classroom and yet a regular person, not some outstanding genius like Robert Campbell (who has to be an outstanding genius since he’s Professor at Tôkyô U. and famous).


  • Elliot Patton

    Are we disagreeing? It doesn’t seem like our opinions differ that much, except perhaps in the hypothetical groups we are taking into account. In the case of elementary students, I fully agree with the method you described. I have seen plenty of children learn English phonics without the use of any IPA symbols. However, for students in junior high and high school, the IPA symbols are both easily learned and helpful. A symbol like /u/ allows for a visual representation of a very specific manner of articulation, one that can easily be taught with a mirror, a couple of diagrams, or even just observed practice. Unfortunately, though, most native English teachers in Japan lack any sort of pedagogical knowledge about phonetics and phonology, and speaking from my own experience as a former ALT and conversation teacher, this lack of knowledge makes teaching pronunciation all the more difficult.

  • lechatelierite

    But that’s the thing, hoss. IPA is widely used in language study outside of English-speaking countries, especially places that don’t use the Latin alphabet. In some cases it’s even a part of primary language acquisition. The opposite perspective, that native English speakers are disadvantaged as instructors by not knowing IPA, is probably closer to the mark.