Worried Japanese English (esp. Pronunciation)


(Japanese "Worried Japanese English")

Why do Japanese people generally have so much trouble with speaking English ?
I think the causes are both defective Japanese language education in elementary school and unsatisfactory English language education in Junior High School.
We Japanese are all suffering the results of bad Japanese and English language education.

Can you work out what "chea parchy" means ?
The pronunciation is . (Written by Japanese kana and international phonetic signs)
Probably neither a Japanese nor native English speaker could figure it out.

Change "ch" into "t" and it is immediately clear: "tea party".
The phonetic sign of it is ← please mouse over.

Or take the word "team" as another example.
Most Japanese will pronounce it as "cheam"
The correct phonetic sign of team is .

As a wrong Japanese phonetic sign (kana) is given for "team", even most Japanese professional TV announcers pronounce 'team' as 'cheam".

If kana for 'team' is written as , most Japanese people will pronounce it correctly.
There are further thousands of Japanized English words which are given incorrect kana (not optimal kana).

Although this incorrect pronunciation may be tolerable in Japanese, the problem is that many people then ignorantly use it in English as well.

I'd like to show examples of correct group and incorrect one of "t" sound in Japanized English here

(correct sound)
tea, party, teacher, time, utility, fruity, street
(I took 'tea party' as the example above because both words belong to correct sound group, and every Japanese reader of this page (who pronounce it correctly) will readily understand that 'chea parchy' is wrong)


(incorrect sound)
(like chicken) team, tube, steam, tip, student, steal, steel, Haiti, tulip, ticket, Tibet, Tunisia
(like sportsman) suitcase, tuna, tool, tour, tourist, tree

While many Japanese do normally pronounce these sounds correctly when they speak English, at times even they find themselves absent-mindedly slipping into the mistakes of 'Japanized English'; they find they cannot escape completely from the everyday bombardment from Japanese TV.

This is only one example of the terrible outcome of the defective Japanese educational system mentioned above.
I'm no English-language expert but I feel strongly about the inadequacies in the present educational curriculum in the teaching of English.

While it is true that in conversation what we say is more important than how we say it, correct pronunciation is important for understanding English - listening comprehension is the weakest point for most Japanese



Defects in Japanese language education

The Japanese syllabary table (goju-on zu)
Japanese children are taught kana in the order in the Japanese syllabary table(Goju-on zu: the systematically arranged table made up of the fifty typical Japanese sounds) at the beginning of the elementary school.
(* kana: there are two series of kana. Both representing the fifty Japanese sounds.
One is "hiragana", which together with Chinese characters (Kanji), is used in the writing of normal Japanese sentences.
The other is "katakana", used to express sounds from foreign languages, especially "Japanized" foreign words.
In this discourse I am using the word "kana" as a shortened form of katakana)

The syllabary table was systematic and consistent at the time it was made, but in the thousand years since, some pronunciation has changed, causing the table to become inconsistent.

For example in the 's' series of kana - "sa-shi-su-se-so" - "shi" clearly has different consonants from the others, yet either neglectfully or ignorantly, teachers in elementary school do not teach children the difference in pronunciation.

(Using alphabet, it is self-explanatory that 'sa' and 'shi' have different consonants and different vowels, but if sa and shi are allotted, for example, signs ® and © respectively like kana, you cannot see how they are different.
Therefore, if teachers teach them that the same series kana have the same consonant, children will easily believe it)

( → Inconsistency in Japanese syllabary table and Romaji)


A Vietnamese girl a 4 grader at a Japanese elementary school, told me that when she learned Romaji (Japanese expressions in the Roman alphabet), she pointed out in class some inconsistencies in the Japanese syllabary table(Goju-on zu).
She was right, but got strong objections from most of the Japanese children.

Each Japanese kana, consisting of a set of one or two consonants and a vowel, corresponds to a kana-letter in which one cannot see any sign of consonant or vowel.
Pupil never learn that Japanese sounds consist of consonant and vowel until they learn Romaji (And that defective 'kunrei' system Romaji).

To the contrary, Vietnamese, like many other languages, use alphabet-based letters consisting of individual consonants and vowels, they are sensitive to the sounds both of their own and foreign languages.

Even most grown-up Japanese are not sensitive to individual consonants and vowels in the Japanese language because of kana education, and they don't recognize any inconsistency in the table of sounds.

For convenience, most Japanese use kana for English pronunciation instead of international phonetic signs , although kana is very unsuitable for any sound of foreign language.

If the teacher does not correct pronunciation right from the start, the mistake are learned and become very difficult to rectify later.

While it is true that thanks to kana, many foreign words were incorporated and many books translated into Japanese, because of its insufficient and inconsistent sound character, Kana has given us inaccurate pronunciation and had adverse effect on speaking and listening to foreign languages.

As a matter of course, most Japanese people pronounce Japanese sounds correctly, but without recognizing the inconsistency.
How can such teachers who are not sensitive to the sounds of their own language, correctly teach English pronunciation to students!

I'm not saying we should change our Japanese pronunciation but that we need to change the way we teach English.


Romaji (using the Roman alphabet to write in Japanese)
At the 4th grade teachers begin teaching Romaji, using the simple but inconsistent Kunrei system.
For example 'si' in the 'sa si su se so' line is pronounced 'shi' as in 'shift' and 'ship'
Later, they teach another Romaji system, the Hepburn system ('hebon-shiki' in Japanese) .
Pupils are confused by learning two different systems; I think it would be far better to teach them only the Hepburn system from the beginning.


Unsatisfactory education in English in Japan

The purpose of teaching English are
1. To teach and learn about the cultures and technologies of other countries
2. To communicate with foreign people.
When English education was first started in Japan, there was an urgent need to catch up with the culture, science and technology of western countries, and the focus was put on the reading of English books.

This practice still remains the norm in Japanese school education, with few teachers capable of teaching students to speak understandable English.


When English education starts in Junior High School, teachers should place particular emphasis on the fundaments, including pronunciation using phonetic signs, not kana. Conversational practice using basic words and themes of interest to students should begin early. After students have acquired a firm understanding of the structure of English sentences they can then begin to enrich their vocabulary.

I am skeptical about the value of teaching English at kindergarten or elementary school, especially band-aid katakana English. I believe it is more harmful than beneficial.
The earlier the better is the generally accepted principle in learning a foreign language and I agree with it.
Some kindergartens are employing native English speakers, it is very nice, but unless the children can continue to use English in the following years, it is disappointing to see them forget most of what they have learned in the following years when they have no follow-up lessons.
For most Japanese it is more important to be able to converse freely in English rather than to be able to read or write the language.

The main responsibility for our poor conversational ability rests with our politicians and the Ministry of Education which put the present education curriculum in place. Government officials are often influenced by sectionalism within departments, putting together curriculums independently without referring to other sections of the education department.

Our children need better English education. For that we need to reform the whole system - both the teaching of our own national language and of English. We need to plan in a comprehensive and systematic way for future education so that the mistakes of the past and present are not repeated.



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since September 12, 2002
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