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The needs of early English phonetic instruction in Japan

22 Comments
By Hitomi Kambara

When you see Japan’s PISA scores and world ranking, you might be impressed by Japanese education’s success in the world. But when you look at English test scores, Japan’s scores are less impressive than the PISA scores. Why don’t Japanese people speak English as fluently as people in other countries?

Issues of English education in Japan are not easily solved. For Japanese, speaking English is especially difficult. First, Japanese and English language structures differ; English grammar is subject-verb-object, while Japanese grammar is subject-object-verb. Moreover, English contains phonemes that do not exist in Japanese, particularly the “five obstructions”/r/ /l/ /th/ /wh/ and /v/. Japanese intonation tends to be flat while English intonation is more varied. These factors make English fluency a challenge.

The K-12 education in Japan focuses on college entrance exams, so curricula is created with high entrance exam scores in mind. Because college entrance exams emphases English grammar and reading, Japanese policymakers and educators have realized the neglect of English speaking skills. As a result, many native English speakers have been recruited in the past few years to teach English speaking skills while recruitment of English teachers is a sign of improvement. Explicit instruction in phonics is needed.

Phonetics heavily influence English pronunciation. When students first learn alphabets, they should master each letter, being taught by phonetic specialists who emphasize the letters Japanese people find difficult. It is a misconception that all native English speakers can teach English phonetics. Native English speakers can tell if a sound is correct or wrong, but most of them do not know how they can produce a specific sound or word. When speaking English, Japanese people must make English sounds that do not exist in Japanese. Phonetic specialists are able to teach tongue placements and mouth movements such as how broad/narrow a person needs to open when he or she pronounces a specific letter or vowel. The earlier they learn nuance of pronunciation, the better. Without explicit phonetic instruction, students may learn to speak incorrectly. It takes much time and effort to fix mispronunciation later in life.

Talking from experience, after six years of English instruction in Japan and seven years in the U.S., I eventually realized that I still struggle with “five obstructions”/r/ /l/ /th/ /wh/ and /v/. I had no explicit phonetic instruction in Japan. No teachers pointed out that my pronunciations were wrong. I unconsciously have been producing these sounds in the way I used to incorrectly pronounce them. It is hard to unlearn incorrect pronunciation. Early explicit phonetic instruction in combination with learning vocabulary and sentences would have been beneficial as it would be beneficial to other Japanese English-learners.

As the world becomes more globalized, the importance of knowing and peeking English correctly will grow. Early explicit phonetic instruction is essential for helping Japanese people learn to speak English fluently.

The author is a doctoral student in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum at the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education, University of Oklahoma.

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22 Comments
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Why don,t japanese people speak as fluently as people in other countries?? Because they don,t need to...Period......

-7 ( +2 / -9 )

Why don,t japanese people speak as fluently as people in other countries?? Because they don,t need to...Period......

Why do Japanese travel in groups when going overseas (or avoid going overseas at all)? Because their English ability isn't good and they are afraid.

They do need to.

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emphases? peeking? While the article is correct in the differences mentioned between English and Japanese, there is another important point which is seldom brought up: high context and low context language. Japanese is high context, as many details are mutually understood or assumed, whereas English includes a far greater percentage of coverage. Japanese can function with fewer references to subjects/objects and employ many set phrases to convey complex ideas. English almost always requires all of the "grammar" words in a sentence in order for it to sound natural. This difference is clear when Japanese students express directly translated ideas in English. Without understanding this difference, many students sound "abrupt" or even robotic in speech, despite having admirable vocabulary or grasp of grammar.

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Hitomi Kambara

Why don’t Japanese people speak English as fluently as people in other countries?

For Japanese, speaking English is especially difficult.

No more difficult than it is for other altaic language speakers, whose languages follow a similar Subject Object Verb sentence patterns, such as Mongols, Turks, Koreans, Kazahks and Uzbeks.

When students first learn alphabets, they should master each letter, being taught by phonetic specialists.

Phonics is probably one of the biggest reasons why Japanese can't produce and recognise spoken English. Firstly the use of the Japanese phonic alphabet for foreign words, Katakana, is so far from the mark of spoken English. Secoundly the whole idea of using phonics to teach spoken English as a Foreign language is completely flawed.

The Big picture, the theory of language. Phonics is about the written form of English. It is concerned with 25 graphemes (the alphabet) who have full stops, commas and capital letter markings. Spoken English is about 44 phonemes (sounds) who have stress, intonation and coarticulation (weak/strong forms, assimilation and sound deletion). The grammar of written English, with it's reliance on relative clauses, is very different from spoken English, with it's reliance on basic sentence patterns and back referencing. The vocabulary of written English is very latinate based (single-word verbs and French loaned adverbs), while the vocabulary of spoken English is very Anglo-Saxon based (multi-word verbs and idiomatic).

The Specific picture, the English language itself. With reference to the correlation of the written and spoken forms of language, English is probably one of the most irregular languages around. The following words all end in the same sound o: , Law, War, Four, More, Tour, Corp and For. There are so many exceptions to most rules of phonics that a student needs to be in a 24/7 English language environment, monitored by a parent who points out those exceptions, for phonics to be an effective tool for learning English.

Those who promote phonics as an effective tool for the EFL classroom, because it has proven to be effective in the early learning classroom of English speaking countries, are putting the cart before the horse. The young learner in an English speaking country comes to school more often than not with an already existing corpus of syntax and semantics of the spoken language. The teacher, or parent, has the function of showing the relationship between the students' existing knowledge of the spoken form with the presented written form and to show the considerable number of exceptions to the rule that exist in written English.

Early explicit phonetic instruction in combination with learning vocabulary and sentences would have been beneficial as it would be beneficial to other Japanese English-learners.

Phonic and phonetics, as previously, stated are completely different. While I agree with the sentiment that phonetic instruction would greatly help Japanese-English learners, because the author can't see the distinction, this article is the usual flawed pontification.

The best thing the Japanese could do for early learners of English as a foreign language, is to employ some professional non-Japanese educators to create an effective 2nd language curriculum and syllabus. Other countries have done it (Malaysia, Brunei and Turkey).

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Another big problem is how Japanese students study. Often they try to use the same techniques as they use for learning kanji, rote memorization. In addition, I think too much emphasis is placed on grammar, and not enough on communication. I'm not saying that grammar shouldn't be taught. I just think that there should be less emphasis on it. Students have to think about their questions and answers too much, wondering if they've conjugated their verbs correctly or whatnot. When English speaking children are learning, they learn a lot of grammar naturally, just by using English. Oh well, I'm sure there will be a lot of posts on this never ending subject of improving how to teach English in Japan.

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@Dog

The following words all end in the same sound o: , Law, War, Four, More, Tour, Corp and For.

Sorry, what?

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Japanese intonation tends to be flat while English intonation is more varied.

... phonics doesn't help with this at all.

The big problem is teachers like this author who are so obsessed with perfect pronunciation that the students are reluctant to open their mouths.

Early explicit phonetic instruction is essential for helping Japanese people learn to speak English fluently.

Fluency? FLUENCY?!!! Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!! Does the author have any idea what a can of worms they've opened with this last line?

All in all fluency isn't a realistic goal for the overwhelming majority of students, nor is it necessary, nor is it necessarily even desirable. Furthermore phonics was designed as a system for helping students read (and there's some debate within the academic community about whether it achieved this objective), and has then been hijacked by every Tom, Dick and Harry for a range of other English education objectives (with even LESS evidence of success).

Frankly I'm dubious about how much teaching phonics actually helps, as opposed to just learning English like native speakers (i.e. listening, reading, writing, speaking ... A LOT).

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@Dog - loads of good points there. :) Anyone who talks about pronunciation and limits herself to the letters of the alphabet without mentioning phoneme once is obviously out of her depth. Also her focus on mispronounced consonants is wide of the mark - I find mispronunciation of vowels causes far more communication breakdowns for my Japanese students. Along with lack of awareness of stress and intonation patterns of English. I had the reverse process learning Japanese and I tackled it by practising whole utterances, as well as working on particular problem sounds. People say I sound like a native speaker on the phone (although my grammar or vocabulary mistakes will give me away at some point) so I think I must have found an effective way. I use a similar approach when teaching my Japanese students English - I help them to identify problems using the phonemic script, as well as making them aware of word and sentence stress, and the meaning conveyed by different intonation patterns. As for the inference that English is somehow UNIQUELY difficult for Japanese speakers - what a load of tosh! Each language presents specific difficulties for particular language speakers, and it's the job of language teachers to help students notice these differences and work on them. That's my experience of learning other languages more or less "close" to English, my first language, and I realise that some people are better than others at doing this for themselves. The least able in Japan are those who do not really listen to others, but I don't think it's anything uniquely Japanese, although the right attitude to the job is a huge part in your speed and success in learning, so those who've set up barriers for themselves are pretty common in Japan.

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The following words all end in the same sound o: , Law, War, Four, More, Tour, Corp and For. Sorry, what?

+1

That should read /some/ /people/ /say/.... I don't pronounce Four and For to sound the same, or More and Tour, or They're and Their or Two and To. The answer to "English should be written as it's spoken" is "as it's spoken by whom?"

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There is no need for 'perfect' pronunciation, in fact no such creature exists. The way I pronounce words is quite different from the way other native speakers from different parts of the same country pronounce them, and different from the way native speakers from other countries do. Yet they're all acceptable forms of pronunciation. There's nothing wrong with a Japanese person speaking English with a Japanese accent, in fact it's rather charming, like a German speaking with a German accent, a Frenchman speaking with a French accent, etc., etc. Just so long as the accent is not too thick to be understandable.

Dog's list of 'same pronunciation' words don't sound anything like the same when I say them.

The reason Japanese people tend to be such poor speakers of English is that there is way too much emphasis on grammar and not enough on real communication; the subject is taught like maths, with only one correct answer; students are penalised for trying and making a mistake, so they learn it's better not to try; they are taught by teachers who themselves are not fluent in the language, so that they are exposed daily to the subliminal message that English isn't really something anyone is supposed to be good at, even after years of study and even when you have a qualification in it.

Phonics works very well with Swedish - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkWMcRlE1mQ&feature=youtu.be

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cleoNov. 19, 2012 - 05:42PM JST There is no need for 'perfect' pronunciation, in fact no such creature exists. The way I pronounce words is quite different from the way other native speakers from different parts of the same country pronounce them, and different from the way native speakers from other countries do. Yet they're all acceptable forms of pronunciation. There's nothing wrong with a Japanese person speaking English with a Japanese accent, in fact it's rather charming, like a German speaking with a German accent, a Frenchman speaking with a French accent, etc., etc. Just so long as the accent is not too thick to be understandable.

+1!!!

I find the French-English accent most charming. I find that when one scratches the surface of teachers touting "perfect" pronunciation it generally means they want them to sound like people from their country... which is ridiculous.

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Cleo, good post. I would like to add that a teacher who is not himself sufficiently fluent in the language will tend to focus his teaching on vocabulary and grammar. He doesn't want to make a fool of himself in front of his students. It's the teachers who need a better education first. And let's not forget that fluency requires permanent training. How many of the teachers have ever been abroad to an English-speaking country, even if only for vacation?

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Fundamentally, if it was actually Engish that was taught they might be able to speak it. How to regurgitate lists of English vocabulary and know how to translate grammatical constructs into comparitive Japanese is not "studying English". Anyone who could speak English after learning it in a Japanese High School would have picked it up by default, not because it was what they had studied.

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"Harro! Do you speak Engrish?" That makes their own identity when traveling, I will be sad if their accent disappear... Same as the Spanish, French, German and Italian... Only Scandinavians sound almost native when they speak. Why bother on pronunciation? To understand and make yourself understood should be the focal point in teaching/learning a language. And for pronunciation well the only way is to travel and try to stay as long as possible in the country you want to learn the language from. Learn Japanese in Japan make sense and is easier, should be the same when you learn English, Spanish, French or whatever you want.

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Gotta get the sounds in your head first... That requires listening to a model that can make the sounds correctly. Once you get them in your head you can start to reproduce them with proper instruction.

Beyond 3rd grade elementary school it is almost impossible without a serious time commitment and a strong motivation from the student.

Vowels are as big a problem as the sounds the author mentions.

Phonics is meant for reading ability but yes it can help with forming the sound needed to sound good in English.

A lot of the natural rhythm of English and intonation can be learned with good songs...

Paying trained teachers (an knowing whether or not they have the skills) would be a big bonus, but unfortunately schools do not want to pay and many don't know the difference...

Short of that... don't let pronunciation stop you from communicating... just do it...

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According to my reading, the reason that people past the age of puberty can never learn to pronounce perfectly has a genetic basis. That is, you are primed with high sensitivity to all sounds for a certain period of your life and after that the level of sensitivity deteriorates and your customary patterns interfere with any attempt to learn others. Massive training by experts can improve things to a certain extent, but when you are still going to sound foriegn at the end of it anyway why bother? There are better ways to use your study time.

Some aspects of the sound system are more easy to make improvements in than others. For example, getting better with intonation is easier for many than trying to get perfect sounding vowel and consonant sounds. Good intonation is a big aid to communication and can compensate for other things in the sense of making your speech more socially attractive. Miscommunication will occaisionally occur as a result of pronounciation problems, but good recovery strategies can deal with this.

The idea of early phonetics traininng for young children is appalling to me. I only hope that the author never tries to do it or to set up a program which does it for the sake of the poor children.

If you are English crazy, then you should expose your children to large quantities of natural English, 4 year olds will watch just about any kid's program with interest regardless of the language it is in. Music is also great. However, that alone in the absence of understanding is not enough. If you don't understand what you hear then it just becomes background noise and you don't differentiate between the sounds.

Bilingual kindergarten, or a period of time being schooled in another country is a better way to go for language learning generally and better for pronounciation too. Provided, of course, that the kindergarten or school has no nutball phonetics experts on their staff!!

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Japanese culture is the biggest obstacle - they fear being embarrassed, don't express their true feelings and generally are ignorant of foreign culture and customs.

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blendoverNov. 20, 2012 - 11:24PM JST According to my reading, the reason that people past the age of puberty can never learn to pronounce perfectly has a genetic basis

Change what you're reading, this is so wrong that it is hilarious. The reason for decreased sound recognition is that the area of the brain responsible for processing new sounds decreases in size as you grow older, but it is NEVER impossible, nor is it genetic.

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Well OK. When I said that 'people .... can never' I did not mean that it is 'never possible for all people'. I was speaking more generally. In fact I believe that it is next to impossible for the vast majority of people to acquire a native speaker accent. Most researchers agree on that, and even if they are all wrong, there aren't many people around who have been able to do it, and an awful lot of brave souls who have tried and failed.

Perhaps I used the term genetic too loosely for you as well. There are in fact a number of theories on this topic. But I would assume that you would agree that the growth and deterioration of the body is genetically driven.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Phonics along with other teaching methods have their place in teaching English. I teach kids from 0 to 18 year. Generally, the kids with the best pronunciation are under 5 years old. I think this is because they have less chance to pick up Japanese sounds (no TV and no radio). So English isn't strange and new. I have found 5/6 years old eager to communicate with me in English. When they don't know the English word they use a Japanese. Grammar isn't an issue either. From 5 I teach basic phonics. I try to get them to guess the letter by the sound. In my English conversation school from 7 years old I try to get them to read simple words. My aim is for my students to be able to open their books, read the conversation and questions by themselves. Usually by 8 years old they can read 99% of the book. By 9 years old I start to have 5 minute conversations with them. Also my students give weekly presentations. This is how you get students to be fluent and able to understand English.

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They do have a place, because a lot of people do it. Whether or not they should have a place is another matter however. Kids often enjoy phonics games, which is a nice time filler, but very little use of phonics is made in junior high school and yet most learn to decode without it.

What is the big advantage of being young and learning at that age? It is that your natural ability to learn grammar and sort out the sound system unconciously in the way that you learn your frst language is alive and in good working order. Any type of teaching that focuses conscoiusly on form rather than meaning in those early stages risks blocking that natural unconcious process from working properly and therefore losing the main advantage of an early start.

That is exactly what is wroing with the author's phonetics approach. It is a formal conscious approach, whereas the natural ability to distinguish sounds is an unconsious one of attaching social meanings to sounds. Studies of those rare individuals who have achieved a native speaker accent have found no influence of formal phonetics training. However, they have found that its more likely to happen in situations where the spouse is a native speaker or he learner belongs to a workgroup of native speakers that they strongly want to bond with.

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I agree with Cleo, there's a huge difference between using English to be understood and using it as a native speaker.

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