By Antonija Cavcic
Is it “Katakana-English” or “Katakana English”? Whichever way one frames it and perceives it, it is unquestionably both liked and loathed and is one of the commonly debated subjects in ESL discourse in Japan, particularly with regard to acquisition of the English sound system. Indeed, the prevalence and practice of Katakana-English pronunciation is often held in a negative light and is frequently criticized for impeding students’ learning. While criticism of this nature tends to come from so-called native speakers, English instructors, or learners concerned about the accuracy or authenticity of their pronunciation, there are also advocates for its use and a distinct market for it in the Japanese publishing industry. Perhaps simply responding to market demands, the publishing industry has arguably played a significant role in perpetuating and encouraging the use of Katakana-English. This paper explores this phenomenon by first tracing the use of Katakana-English in Meiji period school textbooks which are then compared and contrasted with a recent publication from 2016 entitled 怖いくらい通じるカタカナ英語の法則 (Uncannily effective rules of getting by with Katakana-English). Essentially, I attempt to demonstrate how the English language-learning publishing industry in Japan has played a major role in perpetuating pronunciation problems among Japanese ESL learners.
Just what is Katakana-English? While some people may confuse Katakana-English with 外来語 (gairaigo) or so-called loan words such as インターネット (internet) or トマト (tomato), in this paper I use the term “Katakana-English” to refer to the use of katakana inside the Japanese L2 classroom. In a context of IT inundation and increased internationalization, it is little wonder that loan words comprise 10 to 15% of everyday Japanese vocabulary and 80 to 90% of IT-related vocabulary (Olah, 2007). Assuming that the presence and ongoing adoption of loan words is unlikely to cease, it is thus perhaps not unreasonable to suggest that the adoption of loan words is partly accountable for the perpetuation of Katakana-English. While loan words might be part of the problem, what is more concerning is the ongoing practice of using ふりがな (furigana; i.e. kana characters printed beside words) rather than phonetic spellings as a pronunciation key in texts and social contexts. This custom dates back to the Meiji period—when katakana syllabary without a clear purpose after being superseded by hiragana for kanji pronunciationwas pressed into service to represent written Western loan-words (外来語). In ancient Japan, imported Chinese characters formed the foundation of written language, but by the 19th century the Japanese writing system was firmly established and katakana was chosen to replace all written gairaigo (Walker, 2010, p.109). According to Walker, this single decision resulted in three serious consequences: first, the original English word has been removed from cognitive recognition; second, the katakanized word has been branded “forever foreign”; third (and perhaps most damaging communicatively), the katakana script has been used as a pronunciation guide (Walker, 2009, pp.82-85).
Perhaps the use of katakana script as a pronunciation guide is partly related to the lack of emphasis on teaching IPA (International Phonetic Alphabetic system) in Japan. As Wang, et al (2005) pointed out:
In Japan, teaching English pronunciation is not a compulsory subject in schools. It is up to individual schools and English teachers to decide when, if, or how to teach pronunciation. English teachers with good pronunciation and adequate knowledge about how to teach English pronunciation may teach students IPA (International Phonetic Alphabetic system) or some other pronunciation system, while other teachers just use katakana to read and write English pronunciation and many junior high school texts and dictionaries only have katakana pronunciation guides. Also English pronunciation is seldom required in the entrance exam to colleges, so that students do not have the motivation to study English pronunciation. (Wang et al., 2005, p.39)
Wang, Higgins and Shima go on to argue that, “The English of many Japanese learners cannot be understood by non-Japanese speakers because of either poor or Katakana pronunciation,” adding that “Even though a few university English teachers are trying very hard to improve their students’ English pronunciation, many times, the effects are limited,” (Wang et al., 2005, p.39). The reasons for this, according to the authors, are that Japanese students who are corrected more frequently than others tend to lose interest in learning pronunciation, private one–to-one pronunciation training is costly, and “pronunciation training is currently delayed beyond the age when children’s tongues and mouth muscles are flexible” (Wang et al., 2005, pp.39-40). If we accept that these circumstances are still valid, then what are the options to learn or improve one’s pronunciation? If we take into account that: 1) schools and institutions do not have a standard or universal method of teaching pronunciation; 2) private lessons are expensive; and 3) the suggestion that Japanese students generally dislike being corrected in front of others, then perhaps one of the major alternative options of learning pronunciation is through self-study—and self-study involves books, software or other applications. More importantly, however, self-study requires tremendous amounts of motivation. For that reason, players in the self-study industry in Japan have tried to address this problem by marketing self-study as something fun, easy and effortless.
Take for example, Everyday English (http://every-e.com/). Upon accessing the website, the first thing one sees on the top page is a large banner which boasts that Everyday English has been providing “Japan’s leading English Education Materials for Seven Consecutive Years.” It also makes claims such as, “一日たった5分聞くだけ英語が聞き取れる・話が通じる“(Just listen for five minutes a day and your listening comprehension and ability to express yourself in English will improve.) The focus is on the learning process being easy, relaxing, and seemingly passive. This is reinforced by one of the customer testaments made on the YouTube video embedded on Everyday English’s website: “One of the important things is the easiness […] Many Japanese people make effort to study English very ‘stuffly’ […] The most important thing is the easiness of learning” (エブリデイイングリッシュ,2012).
Thus, in order to respond to this and various other consumer concerns/demands, Everyday English has provided the following solutions or selling points on its website (see source text in Figure 1):
Figure 1: Everyday English Selling Points (Everyday English, 2017)
- I can’t pick up what people are saying à You’ll listen to two individual voices in a short conversation and you’ll start to pick up what they’re saying. You’ll increase your vocabulary, too!
- I can’t speak à You’ll pick up expressions frequently used by foreigners in no time!
- People can’t understand what I’m saying à You’ll be able to produce clear and authentic pronunciation—just like a native speaker!
- I can’t make conversation à You’ll learn simple and useful expressions applicable to many situations.
- I’ll end up forgetting everything I learned à Don’t worry! Because you’ll be listening every day, you’ll maintain your English skills.
In addition, Everyday English notes reveals its three secrets to success—that is, just listen and learn, no texts necessary; listen to native speakers speaking at natural speeds; use frequently used English in situations where you are most likely to use English such as for travelling purposes, omotenashi purposes, business, passing tests, listening to Western music, and so on (Everyday English, 2017).
Figure 2: Everyday English Secrets (Everyday English, 2017)
Although it sounds rather ideal and attractive, it is certainly a questionable method in terms of its effectiveness. Needless to say, this is not a stand-alone case. This is simply one example of a self-study service in a publishing industry such services and products.
While these kinds of products are readily available online or in bookstores that are simply responding to market demands, universities also provide a number of such texts. For an example, I chose the most recently published from over 20 listening and pronunciation-related books available at Asia University’s library. Published in 2016, 発音とスペルの法則: 英語の教師・学習者のために (The rules for spelling and pronunciation: For English instructors and learners) seems to be a reasonable title on the premise that there are certain rules and patterns which pertain to spelling and pronunciation. However, opening the text reveals quite a number of chapters and pages that rely heavily on kana pronunciation guides. Considering that this text was found in a university library, I anticipated that major bookstore chains would stock such items to a greater extent. To ascertain this, I visited one of the most prevalent secondhand bookstores in Japan, Book Off. A quick glance at the English textbook shelf revealed that the same kind of fare was available at popular book vendors.
However, the emphasis on ease of study and effortless improvement seems to be reinforced more extremely by titles such as: 先端脳科学者による一ヶ月簡単英会話脳トレ (Easy English conversation brain training in a month according to a leading neuroscientist), 3単語ですぐ話せる (Learn how to speak immediately using just three words), 中学レベルの英単語でネイティブとペラペラ話せる本 (Speak fluently with native speakers using Junior High School-level vocabulary) or 絵で見てパッ！と言う英会話トレーニング (Speak everyday English instantly through pictures). Easy, quickly, and fluently. That seems to be the emphasis in the self-study industry, but how is it relevant to the use of ever-present Katakana-English? Simply put, Katakana-English is easy and comfortable for Japanese learners. , when reading a beginner’s Japanese textbook for the first time, most European learners of Japanese will probably encounter ローマ字 (Romanized Japanese characters) in the textbook and/or a large chunk of the textbook might be written in Japanese, but there are vital issues such as accuracy and authenticity which accompany Japanese textbooks written in ロマー字. In the initial stages of language learning, it might be acceptable as a transition tool, but as students develop, I argue that authentic L2 pronunciation training and textual input should be emphasized. While the use of ローマ字 Japanese textbooks or Katakana-English in contemporary English textbooks is not uncommon, what was the situation like over 100 years ago when Katakana-English flourished in Meiji period English textbooks and language learning resources?
Overview of texts employing Katakana-English in the Meiji Period
To see how Katakana-English has influenced the publishing industry in present day Japan, it is essential to track back to the days when English education in Japan was in its infancy – in the Meiji period. Even at that time, quite a number of texts were available not only to instructors, school, college or university students, but some books were also available to the average consumer. In any case, the first of the texts I selected, 英語発音秘訣 (English pronunciation tips) was written and published by Kikuchi Takenobu and published in 1886.
Figure 3: Oral Diagram II
Figure 4: Kana Pronunciation Notes
Figure 3 is one of the excerpts from the text which seems to indicate that the text might have some linguistic merit, or at least suggest that the text is encouraging learners to produce authentic or intelligible pronunciation of English sounds. However, the kana pronunciation guides which start to appear further into the text seem to nullify any attempts to encourage students to strive for accuracy or produce a variety of sounds (see Figure 4).
The second text in my sample, 和英発音原理 (The principles of English pronunciation) was written and published by Ikeda Tomoyasu in 1888. At first glance, the title seems to imply that the text is possibly based on linguistic theory or empirical studies in the field. Furthermore, much like the former text, the oral diagrams at the beginning of the text seem promising and useful, however the inclusion of pinyin-like diacritical marks, as well as katakana further into the text, just seem to complicate things on the learner’s part (see Figures 5 to 7). Needless to say, Chinese was learned long before English was introduced in Japan and Sino-Japanese relations were significant in the late 19th century, so it is understandable why a pinyin-like guide to pronunciation might have been applied.
Figure 5: Ikeda’s Oral Diagram I
Figure 6: Ikeda’s Oral Diagram II
Figure 7: Ikeda’s Oral Diagram III
While the texts introduced thus far seemed to market themselves on their scientific foundations, Imamura Gentarou’s Practical English Conversation (1899) appears to have targeted a more general market. However, upon reading the text, the results reveal otherwise. First and foremost, the Japanese title (英和実用会話: 簡易速成) is somewhat different from the English translated title, as it suggests that the reader can learn practical English quickly and easily. The introduction to the text further emphasizes the need to study “easy and practical” English in the late 19th century (see Figure 8).
Figure 8: Imamura’s Introduction
Figure 9: Katakana Chart
Figure 10: Spelling Chart
Essentially, the book starts by introducing a Romanized katakana chart followed by a spelling guide featuring some phonics, which are all complemented with katakana pronunciation guides (see Figure 9 and 10).
After several pages of these pronunciation guides, the book then introduces basic vocabulary sets such as numbers, pronouns, prepositions, and greetings. This is then followed by more specific vocabulary sets such as terms of address and vocabulary used specifically for business and trade purposes. Unsurprisingly, katakana and errors are everywhere to be seen (see Figure 11).
Figure 11: Vocabulary Set
Figure 12: Short Phrases
Figure 13: Dialogues
Aside from the use of kana in vocabulary sets, there are also sentences in the “short phrases” section written entirely in katakana (see Figure 12). Themes and contexts include talking about the weather, shopping, illness, telling the time, and making future plans, and so on. The overt reliance on kana and the lack of explanations of either grammar or form arguably imply that the focus is not on mastering the basics of the language for sustainable language acquisition. Rather, the focus is simply on rote learning and reproducing.
Further into the text there is a dialogues section. Once again, the example sentences are supplemented with full sentences of kana for pronunciation guidance. Dialogue contexts include at the hatter’s, at the tailor’s, at a shipping broker, at a play-things shop, at a fruit shop, asking a way (asking for directions), and similar situations one might encounter when travelling or living abroad. While not all contexts may have been relevant, many of them were fairly plausible situations, considering that the book was published at a time when a number of students and scholars were studying abroad in England or serving in the military between the Sino-Japanese war and the Boxer Rebellion. To cater for the latter type of students, less general dialogue contexts include talking about a soldier (Figure 13) or a police man. Evidently some dialogues were rather lengthy and arguably impractical—reinforcing that the emphasis is on simply rote learning the katakana pronunciations.
Towards the end of the book, a guide for letter writing is included. Rather surprisingly, even the template for writing letters placed katakana above every lexical item. The purpose of this seems a little unclear since letter writing generally does not involve articulation. In any case, after this section, the text ends abruptly with the Romanized forms of common Japanese names, names of prefectures, towns, and currencies.
Perhaps the author and publisher had legitimate reasons to select the specific content I noted and present it in an arbitrary fashion, but rather than being concerned about the content or structure of the text, I am concerned about the overwhelming use of katakana, the simplified spelling chart, and the assumption that one can drastically improve one’s speaking and pronunciation skills through rote learning of katakana-ized phrases. Although not entirely impossible, self-study is arguably not the best way to improve one’s conversation and pronunciation skills. Having said that, if we take into account the context, specifically, the fact that many students in pre-war Japan were learning English for military or trade purposes (and quickly at that), then this text may well have been a valuable resource for them. In addition, given that Japanese education has roots in Confucian culture, rote learning is still emphasized and practiced in many learning contexts even to this day. Due to these reasons, I argue that the supply and demand of these simplified speed-learning texts has probably been consistent for over the last 150 years or so.
Contemporary self-study pronunciation texts
Having considered several texts from the Meiji period, let us now turn to the current situation in the self-study publishing scene in Japan. Have texts or people’s attitudes towards language learning changed? At least we can acknowledge there are a great variety of texts and learning tools available now, but as I will demonstrate, there are the exceptional few authors whose attitudes have not changed. These are the people who perpetuate speed-learning culture and even take pride in maintaining the Katakana-English tradition. One of these authors and one of these texts is the aforementioned怖いくらい通じるカタカナ英語 (Uncannily effective rules of getting by with Katakana-English) written by Ikegaya Yuji and published by Kodansha in late 2016. However, prior to examining the text itself, it is necessary to briefly consider the author’s background. Believe it or not, Ikegaya holds a Ph.D. in pharmacology and is currently employed as a professor in the same field at Tokyo University. He studied abroad in New York for two and a half years and his experience of being unable to both comprehend and produce naturally-spoken English was the inspiration for this book.
Also, there is a disclaimer section in the introduction where Ikegaya claims three things: 1) That being born and raised in Japan, it is too late for him to cultivate and produce authentic English pronunciation (a belief based on scientific evidence), so he can only produce a katakana accent; 2) Due to the reasons in 1), his pronunciation is beyond repair and incomprehensible; and 3) Despite 1) and 2), he found that when he changed the katakana characters slightly, his English apparently became more intelligible (2016, p.7). He goes on to admit that he is not an English professor, nor did he receive any special English education. Therefore, the methods of pronouncing Katakana-English introduced in his book are, by his admission, not perfect and the book itself is not suitable as an English textbook or for students taking English exams. Nevertheless, Ikegaya still believes that it is a suitable resource for Japanese EFL learners who want to be understood by Americans and/or communicate and sound like near-native speakers, even if they are not perfect (2016, p.7; p.37). He understands that linguists believe that Katakana-English is a terrible way to learn pronunciation, but defends his stance by stating that he is not aiming for perfection – he is merely “giving a gift” to absolute beginners of English or people like him, who have simply given up hope on being able to converse smoothly and accurately (2016, p.8). He believes it is futile to strive for perfection, therefore using Katakana-English is apparently acceptable. In fact, Ikegaya even claims, without providing any references, that the neural circuits of Japanese brains were not built for English pronunciation. In all honesty, Ikegaya knows that his methods will be criticized and “made fun of,” but he insists that it is simply because people who are good at English do not understand the feelings of those who are not (2016, p.31).
Ikegaya then starts the book by offering advice to his readers. First, in order for these absolute beginners and hopeless learners to overcome their issues with communicating in English, Ikegaya argues that they have to reset everything they have been taught about English and deeply consider the notion that Katakana-English might actually be a good thing. Once learners grasp this, according to Ikegaya, they will maintain their motivation levels and continue practicing enthusiastically. But how long can one practice enthusiastically or maintain these levels of motivation? According to Ikegaya, readers should practice the same example sentences 70 times (2016, p.9). He does so without justifying why. Although subject to debate, I find this boot camp-like approach to language learning hardly sustainable for most learners.
In Part II and Part III of the book, Ikegaya covers what he calls a “Practical English course for beginners” in which phrases are arbitrarily introduced. There is very little structure, if any. Furthermore, the English introduced is largely casual and colloquial and localized to reflect various situations one might encounter in New York which. In regards to the slight alterations to the Katakana-English that Ikegaya makes, it is obvious that he has made the alterations based on a typical New York accent. While that may be resourceful for those living or moving to New York, it does not really cater for people who need to be able to understand a variety of English speakers. Take, for instance, the following excerpt (Figure 14) where you can see some examples of this particular variant of Katakana-English. For example, becomes ナラロウ(nararou). Furthermore, on each page, there is also a QR code that connects the reader to the MP3 recordings of the phrases being spoken by a Japanese learner and a so-called native speaker.
Figure 14: Beginner’s Course
After pages of these collections of arbitrary phrases, Part IV becomes even more problematic. In this section, Ikegaya introduces and explains 13 specific rules that must be learned and drilled. There are also four supplementary rules thatcover exceptions and irregular pronunciations. However, before covering the supplementary rules, I will provide a brief overview of the 13 rules, followed by the rather challenging practice questions (Figures 15 and 16).
Figure 15: Ikegaya’s 13 Rules
Figure 16: Practice Questions
In numerical order:
- The (L) at the end of a word should be pronounced as (ウ);
- (A) should be pronounced as (エア);
- (-ION) ending words should be pronounced as (シュン);
- (T) ending words should simply drop the (T);
- (O) is (ア);
- (I) should be pronounced as (エ);
- (T) sounds should borrow katakana from the (ラ/RA-RO group);
- (US) should be pronounced as (エス);
- (アー/ɜː) should be pronounced as (ウオア);
- (アー) at the end of a sentence should be pronounced as (オ);
- With words that end in (NT), drop the (T);
- should be pronounced as (ウウ); and
- With words ending in (-TANT), only the (N) is slightly voiced.
After studying these rules, readers are then encouraged to attempt the “Practice Questions” (Figure 23). For example, instead of “ボストン” (Boston), the Ikegaya-recommended pronunciation is “バッスン.” Debatable to say the least, but as the disclaimer reminds us, this is not a work of linguistic merit.
Now aside from the 13 “standard” rules that Ikegaya provides, he also acknowledges that there are exceptions – four of them, to be precise. The first is the notorious /L/ and /R/problem. Ikegaya claims that the Japanese brain cannot differentiate between /L/ and /R/ very well, and he adds that to aim for perfection is simply impossible (2016, p.165). Again, he argues this without providing empirical evidence or studies to substantiate his claims. On a positive note, for the first time in the book, Ikegaya explains (without diagrams) how to produce the (L) and (R) sounds, respectively. (L), he says, can be produced by simply biting one’s tongue, whereas (R) can be produced by keeping one’s tongue suspended in one’s mouth, not touching anything at all. The second exception is the (B) and (V) problem. Ikegaya suggests that (B) is equivalent to the バ行 (ba, bi, bu, be, bo row) in Japanese, while (V) is produced by biting the lower lip. He further adds that it is understandable if learners cannot tell the difference between (B) and (V), but notes that ヴ is a better alternative when producing (V) sounds. For example, village =ヴエレッジ. The third exception to his rules is related to the trouble many Japanese learners of English have with distinguishing (F) from (H) sounds. For Ikegaya, (F) is simply produced by biting one’s lower lip, while (H) is equivalent to the ハ行 (ha, hi, fu, he, ho row) in Japanese. Rather simplistic considering the pronunciation of フ (fu) is quite different than (hʊ). For instance, the word “hook” would still be pronounced as “フック.” The final exception Ikegaya touches on is one of the most notoriously difficult to pronounce, the (TH) sound. This is probably the first time in the book that the phonetic symbols are introduced: namely, Θ and ð. In spite of this, Ikegaya suggests that the standardザ (“za”, the common katakanization of the word “the”) should be traded for ダ, and therefore using the タ orダ行 (‘ta’ and ‘da’ rows, respectively) will suffice to produce (TH) sounds as long as one bites their tongue. Considering the variety of Englishes one may be exposed to living or working in a globalized context, this is perhaps one of the more useful rules. Taking into account the difficulty that many learners of English with Asian language backgrounds have with (TH), I would argue that this rule is fairly reasonable, but not a standard by any means.
After the introduction of the aforementioned rules, in the last part of the book, Ikegaya discusses his various views on language acquisition, making a lot of commonsensical and also a lot of contentious claims along the way. As heavily biased and overly pessimistic his arguments are, it is, however, necessary to cover some of the major claims that Ikegaya makes. They are as follows:
- First, he argues that adult beginners give up on the idea of mastering English. For Ikegaya, English is just a tool (2016, p.184). While giving up on perfection is a reasonable suggestion, striving for excellence is not necessarily bad.
- Although the Katakana-English method may be considered an easy way out for people who are not particularly good at speaking English, Ikegaya argues that it does involve a lot of hard work. Namely, one has to repeat the phrases 70 times (2016, p.197). Again, no empirical evidence or reasoning behind this required number is outlined.
- Children should be exposed to English from a very young age if they have any hope in becoming better English speakers. For Ikegaya, once you get old, it is “too late.” (2016, pp.178-179, p.207) The former claim holds some validity, but the latter claim is certainly debatable. For some, it is never too late to learn a language—it just requires more effort.
- Japanese learners cannot differentiate between (R) and (L) sounds because there is no (L) in Japanese. Furthermore, due to a lack of exposure to (L) and contexts in which one can practice or use it, as an evolutionary phenomenon, Japanese people’s ability to pick up or distinguish (L) devolved (2016, p.165). Evidently, Ikegaya’s claims seem to be informed by evolutionary theory and biological determinism. The problem with this is that he denies the argument that newborns have the ability to pick up a variety of phonetic input and listen for phonetic detail (Werker and Tees, 2014, p.509). Everyone is arguably born with this capability, but exposure to linguistic input is necessary to develop these skills. It is quite problematic to assume that Japanese children are born with the ability to only hear Japanese sounds.
Without needlessly searching for, let alone reading contemporary speed-learning texts, it is evident that there is a market for them and that they continue to be published. In all fairness, would it not be nice to learn another language with little to no effort? While instructors might look down on rote learning and the use of Katakana-English, it is essential to take into account the learners’ needs, the English language learning environment in Japan, and the publishing industry’s response to its consumers needs. On this note, and in short, what I have tried to argue in this paper is that the publishing industry in Japan is partly responsible for perpetuating ザ ・カタカナ・イングリシュー. However, this is possibly due to the fact that there is a great demand for it and unfortunately, it seems like the respective supply of speed learning materials advocating the use of Katakana-English pronunciation seems to show no signs of slowing. While this is beyond the control of English instructors, what they can do is try to understand their students’ needs, maximize the time spent on pronunciation in class, and stress the importance of producing intelligible English. As futile as it may be to simply undo a tradition of Katakana-English pronunciation spanning over a century, striving to produce intelligible (if Katakanized) English is at least a feasible pursuit.
Originally from the state which boasts the happiest animal on earth – Western Australia, Antonija Cavcic is currently a visiting faculty member at Asia University. Although she finally completed her PhD in late 2017 (and is in desperate need of a break), Antonija remains involved in research concerning both Japanese popular culture and English language education in Japan.
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