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.
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.
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