The reason why Japanese students don’t pronounce English properly

By Oona McGee, SoraNews24

If you’ve ever taught English at a Japanese school before, you’ve probably noticed something that students across different classes and years have in common: they use “katakana pronunciation” to speak English.

Katakana pronunciation refers to the pronunciation of English words as they would be written in katakana, the syllabary used for loanwords from overseas. This means the word “sit” becomes “shitto“, “light” becomes “raito“, and “thing” becomes “shingu“.

While there’s nothing wrong with using katakana English as a preliminary tool to get the phonetics of a new word right, it’s a little different when you have to use it all the time because you don’t want to be the nail that sticks out in the classroom.

Deru kugi wa utareru” or “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” is the saying often quoted to describe the importance of the group dynamic in Japan, and it’s even more keenly evident amongst impressionable teens and pre-teens at school.

So when it comes to speaking English in class, nobody wants to stand out and sound different to the others, and this is something that Japanese Twitter user and high school teacher Shira (@shirassh) recently brought to everyone’s attention with the following tweet.

Screen Shot 2020-09-14 at 8.13.05.png

The tweet above reads:

“When Japanese junior and senior high school students try to improve their English pronunciation, their biggest obstacle is “surrounding eyes”. If only one person speaks with a native accent, they’ll stand out in class and if they’re unlucky they’ll get bullied. There are even cases where some returnee students are bothered by it so they purposely speak with bad katakana pronunciation.” 

Shira says this observation is not based on data or formal interviews but personal experience, knowledge gleaned from books, and student stories. However, as a school teacher with years of experience, Shira has seen firsthand the effect of the “surrounding eyes” on students’ speaking skills in the classroom.

The point about returnee students is one that’s often discussed in teachers’ circles, as students who’ve returned to Japan after living abroad will often speak to teachers with perfect pronunciation and a native-speaker level of English, but when called on to speak in class, they use katakana English to reply in front of their classmates.

Shira’s tweet struck a chord with a large number of people, who backed up her observation with tales of their own experiences speaking English at school.

“Even though I was brought up in an English-speaking country when I was a young child, I couldn’t speak at all at school in Japan.

When I raised my hand to give my opinion in class, students would giggle, and when I thought I’d try to use the correct pronunciation, students would giggle. It was one of the reasons I hated school.”

“When I was a third year junior high school student, a female student in the same class as me, who had been speaking English since elementary school, participated in an English speech contest. She had very beautiful English pronunciation, but a boy in our class made fun of her, saying “It sounds like Chinese. China, China.” Looking back on it now, I can’t believe how terribly racist that was.”

“When I was a junior high school student, I listened to a lot of British rock music, and when I pronounced it the way I heard it in a song in my first English class, the teacher laughed at me through their nose as if to say, “What are you trying to do?” After that, I spoke with katakana pronunciation. I hated English class and became self-conscious of being bad at English itself.”

“My girlfriend and I would raise our hands and tried to speak in English as much as we could in English class, but we got bullied for it. There’s no choice but to use Japanese katakana pronunciation during compulsory education at public junior high schools. You can use pronunciation familiar to native speakers only after school or at English conversation schools, so the way we pronounced things was split up according to the different environments.”

From an adult’s point-of-view, it can be disheartening to see students with excellent English abilities purposely lowering their level of proficiency to “fit in” with their classmates. However, it’s also an understandable thing to do when you’re young and impressionable, and thankfully it doesn’t last forever, as Shira goes on to say: “When junior high school students who experience a binding spell like this enter an environment where all the students have strong English skills — at a high school with an International Department or a university with a Foreign Languages Department — speaking with a native pronunciation becomes okay and they can experience a strong sense of liberation.”

It’s good to know there’s light at the end of the tunnel for students who feel stifled by the constraints of compulsory English education in Japan, where even students with no interest in English at all are required to learn the language.

Here’s hoping more students, with the support of their teachers, are able to find the courage to stand up and be the nail that stands out in the classroom by pronouncing English in whatever way comes naturally to them. And hopefully parents can teach their students to be more accepting of different styles of talking in the classroom.

Because when you’re studying English, trying new things and making mistakes in a safe environment is the only way to improve your skills.

Source: Twitter/@shirassh via Hachima Kiko

Read more stories from SoraNews24.

-- What’s wrong with English education in Japan? Pull up a chair…

-- “We wasted so much time in English class” — Japanese Twitter user points out major teaching flaw

-- Under 35 percent of middle school English teachers in Japan meet government proficiency benchmark

© SoraNews24

©2023 GPlusMedia Inc.

Login to comment

Stop allowing distorted pronunciation in the classroom PERIOD!

Natve English speakers unfamiliar with Japan cannot understand it. It’s useless, it’s not English, it’s another branch of the Japanese language.

18 ( +20 / -2 )


I agree with you on your second point.

I have been overseas with a Japanese colleague and, while I could understand what he was saying in English because I live in Japan, a lot of the locals we interacted with could not.

13 ( +13 / -0 )

Katakana is a cancer. For over 44 years I've hosted Japanese in the US and so many of my American friends and acquaintances just could not decipher what the katakana pronounced words were. It always brought glances at me to help translate.

10 ( +12 / -2 )

There are no excuses in the end. While it’s true that accents and cultural backgrounds differ there’s also a point that those looking to be fluent with our language will be serious about even the pronunciation. Others will never care maybe. I make sure people I teach or speak with learn that kana English is below acceptance level. Unless I set a reasonable standard they won’t try. It may take time with some. Others enjoy going for the higher standard. Speaking it well also helps when they watch movies or YouTube videos, etc.

10 ( +11 / -1 )

Reason 1: Education system designed to make students pass tests. And not just in English.

Reason 2: Teachers who aren't bothered about making students pronounce English perfectly.

10 ( +11 / -1 )

Deru kugi wa utareru” or “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” 

When I was a youngster, this was called 'peer pressure.'

Secondly, I find it amusing that when I pronounce a Japanese word incorrectly, suddenly nobody can understand anything I said. They don't take the time to consider the context, the rest of the sentence, or even how close I was to the word I intended.

Biru (building) instead of bi-ru (beer), for example in the sentence spoken in a local izakaya: "On a hot day like today, I'd like to have a nice cold building." Laughter ensues.

This frustratingly precise linguistic bullying is helping improve my pronunciation. But katakana English in the classroom is fine, no problem, close enough.

6 ( +8 / -2 )

 She had very beautiful English pronunciation, but a boy in our class made fun of her, saying “It sounds like Chinese. China, China.” Looking back on it now, I can’t believe how terribly racist that was.”

I think the boy was just acknowledging that the Chinese speak better English.


One person's idea of distorted pronunciation may be different from another's. The native English speakers who are teaching in Japan aren't all from the same country, so there's a lot of variation in accent, and it goes even further than that, as American and British speakers don't even stress the same syllables a lot of the time.

The differences between US and UK British pronunciation are very subtle when you compare them with katakana English. I'm not sure why you're trying to make excuses. And I'm not sure why you bring up the examples of India, Singapore, HK, Philippines. Their English may not be perfect but their English is so much better than what the average Japanese speaks. Yes, these countries have a historical advantage, but most don't speak English as their first language. In fact, many are multi-lingual.

Even if these people speak English as a second or third language, the most important thing is that they're not scared to use it, and it's not a big deal to be seen speaking in English. This is another thing keeping the standards low in Japan.

When I first attended Japanese classes before coming here, someone asked the teacher what the Japanese word for babysitter was. When she answered, everyone burst out laughing. She was puzzled. OK, si has to be replaced by shi in standard Japanese, but still, it has its consequences.

8 ( +9 / -1 )

Even if these people speak English as a second or third language, the most important thing is that they're not scared to use it, and it's not a big deal to be seen speaking in English. This is another thing keeping the standards low in Japan.

100% this.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

It can be tricky. 'Gaijin' is Japanese for 'foreigner' but Nick Lowe wrote about touring in Japan and he titled the song 'Gai-Gin Man'. Then again, he's always been witty in his songwriting anyway.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

To back up this Shira San just for a moment, I was teaching some evening classes and an elderly couple came and sat in the very front row. Not only were they eager to learn (most ordinary Japanese students, if given a choice, will sit at the far back in the corners), but it turned out that their English pronunciation was surprisingly good.

When I complimented them, they replied that they were, "old enough at last to be able to ignore other people's eyes. We do not have long to live, so we do not care any more. This is why young people here make little or no progress in spoken English." From the horse's mouth.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Citibank left Japan because the Japanese pronunciation of their name was amazingly accurate.

7 ( +9 / -2 )

Bang on. Seeing Japanese tourists in London asking for ko-hee and getting puzzled looks. Teach standard pronunciation, too many Japanese say to me that many sounds in English are not in the Japanese syllabary, so they can’t pronounce them. When I took Japanese lessons I had to practice ryo, ryu, tsu etc as the tutor insisted I say them correctly, even though they are not found in English.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Harry_GattoToday  03:29 pm JST

Citibank left Japan because the Japanese pronunciation of their name was amazingly accurate.

Haha....very funny. Unfortunately not reality because they closed retail branches in many places including EU at the same time.

I had a J-student many many decades ago who was pretty darn close to fluent in conversation. But still couldn't differentiate the pronunciation difference between "courage" and "college". The phonetic basis of the J-language makes it very difficult to pronounce English words. French has got to be even worse. But to be fair most gaijin don't pronounce Japanese very well either. Except for really long term residents and TV celebs.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Let's start with the 'models' available to (often very young) English learners. Most of the time, they are elementary school teachers, or even juku teachers, who are Japanese speakers. So, their own pronunciation is imperfect.

Next, from whom did they learn their own English? Probably from another Japanese speaker of English. The errors are thus compounded, multiplied, passed on.

Third, the propagation of Jinglish in the media.

Millions of people around the world achieve good renditions of English. Why not the Japanese?

Then, the bullying mentioned above, and this nonsense about the nail sticking out getting hammered down - well, that's endemic to Japanese society, and is one of its most inhibiting, unattractive features.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I am Japanese and can't pronounce well. But I can understand what natives say. As long as I live in Japan, there is no problem about my bad pronunciation. given the covid19 situation, I don't find any reasons to pronounce better. To put it simply, most Japanese have little chance to speak or listen to real English, thereby most Japanese can't speak English naturally.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Very interesting. This idea of the herd mentality preventing young Japanese from picking up foreign languages makes sense, and I think the phenomenon extends in a more general sense to explain behavior in school.

I have seen something vaguely similar here in the States. Not regarding learning a language, but how one behaves in a group setting. If the others in that group are mostly of a lower education level, then no one wants to stand out as being more educated than the others. People who are smarter than the others are sometimes looked down upon. It was one of the things I loved about going to be surrounded by people who were not embarrassed to be smart, and to not have to hide one's light. We started with college placement tests in Junior High School. Except for English (always have had trouble with languages), I was already at a college level in all my subjects in Junior High School. University was liberating.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

When I was a youngster, this was called 'peer pressure.'

Right, and it's generally at its worst in the early teenage years. It's probably not the best time to teach a foreign language for the first time. At school in Scotland, I remember it was OK to speak English with a French accent (having a laugh) but not to speak French with a French accent in the French class (showing off).

A little off-topic, but the story reminded me of two new employees in a company English class I taught. One had spent his high school years in the US and the other in Australia. To my ears, their English was pretty much perfect in the sense they spoke like teenagers, but they could hardly understand a word each other said.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Stop allowing distorted pronounciations. Furthermore, expand hiragana to include ra ri ru ra ro and la li lu le lo.

Get rid of katakana and just use hiragana symbols underlined to show foreign names, countries and onomatopoeia. Finaly, use finger spaces/gaps between words to make it easier to read.

The future for Japan's language is beautiful if its simplified.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

This frustratingly precise linguistic bullying [from Japanese to non-Japanese] is helping improve my pronunciation. But katakana English in the classroom is fine, no problem, close enough.

So true, Borscht. This is also true of traditional artforms which non-Japanese wish to learn. The classes move along advancing students according to their place in the hierarchy. However, the non-Japanese student has no standing in the hierarchy. As a result, their true achievement often goes unacknowledged or is put down in "frustratingly precise" and horrifically picky ways. The downside of shaming cultures.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

As a future linguist and English teacher in Japan. There is NO perfect, non-accented English. Language perception is based on the Anthropological idea of western Expansion. Later in the future, it was called, Manifest Destiny. Now, that America can not start a war(making enemies) they try to push the ideology that English is the language of opportunity(future) in reality, not so much. These English monolinguals are so narrow-minded and uncultivated(Even though they seem civilized and well mannered). So, if you speak another primary language maintain that language( do what you can to prevent language loss by having critical awareness) English has no standard and varies. There is English from Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Even within these nations, English is varied among dialects. I believe that students should find their own language style as they learn examples of different dialects. So in a nutshell, if students learn more languages the better chances they have in careers, and they gain different perspectives from all the different cultures they learned or experienced in a community. I apologize for the long comment, but I can not stand people who are narrow-minded saying, "There is a standard, non-accented English". Pfff, monoglots of any language should do their best to immerse themselves in other languages to see new perspectives and be open-minded in this world.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

My wife is originally from Shanghai, which has its own unique dialect that non-Shanghai born Mandarin speakers find mostly unintelligible, and we both laugh about her "Chinglish". She'll say stuff like "it's going to worse", or she will yell at our boy "don't screaming !" She might remind me to turn the air conditioner off or "it will on all day". Her instructors never apparently taught the verb to be. I think most students of a new language initially try to simply substitute the words of the new language into their familiar native sentence structure, often with results that sound funny to native speakers. Refinement takes time and immersion. I can't throw stones because my own attempts and pronouncing words in Mandarin are at least as lame and humorous as any of my wife's Chinglish. I will say that the Chinese speak English better than most Japanese English speakers and their commercial English is vastly better. Anyone who ever had to use old Honda manuals to fix their motorcycles or cars knows what I mean, but even today trying to decipher English translations of product descriptions on Buyee or Jauce is often tough work that leaves you either laughing or highly frustrated.

I also almost needed an interpreter when I lived in Australia but that's another story.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Desert Tortoise,

You make me think of an elderly Japanese friend here in Tennessee who used to remind her children that after eating they should put their plates in the washdisher.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Deru kugi wa utareru” or “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”

The author is confusing the Japanese and English sayings here. The saying in English is “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down”. The saying in Japanese is 出るは打たれる - でるくいはうたれる - deru kui ha utareru. Kugi, used by the author means nail, whereas the Japanese saying uses kui, meaning “post” (as in a fence post).

1 ( +1 / -0 )

You make me think of an elderly Japanese friend here in Tennessee who used to remind her children that after eating they should put their plates in the washdisher.

My wife calls it the "brushteeth". I still laugh thinking about Honda manuals calling the turn signal a "winkie".

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I really do not want my kids being taught English by their Japanese school teacher. My kids can speak English just fine but later in the day, after they've had an English class, I notice they're screwing up some pronunciation. I wish I could pull them out of it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Another Chinglish gem of my wife's is to ask our boy "are you listen" instead of did you listen?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites