Pronunciations problems inIn recent years, english has become a required part of the japan
ese curriculum, similar to science, math, and social studies. By the time most japanese students have graduate
from high school they have spent upwards of ten years studying english. Yet, most of these children cannot tell the difference between words like sing and thing or light and right. Many of these problems are blamed on the simplicity of the japanese sound system in comparison to the english one.
The biggest and most well known pronunciation difference is found among pairs of sounds seen as allophones in japanese, but different phonemes in english. Perhaps most famous are the, /l/ and /r/ sounds, though /b/ and /v/, /s/ and th, and /n/ and /m/ are all intermixed by students nearly as often. Some of these problems are easy to correct by pointing out clearly visible pronunciation differences, such as bilabial vs. labio-dental sounds. Others, such as the infamous liquids, take years of hard work and dedicated practice to master.
In addition to these similar pairs are sounds that simply do not exist in japanese. The th, /v/, /w/, cha, and nearly all glottal and palatal alveolar sounds present in english. While some of these sounds are simple to explain, others can be extremely problematic. Many children have trouble differentiating between the voiced and voiceless th sounds, for example, while others cannot recognize words in which /t/ sound has been softened, as in water.
Consonants, however, are not nearly as problematic as vowels. The japanese vowel system is simple and consistent. The three front vowels and two back vowels are almost always pronounced fully, especially as long and short vowels are not considered allophones. Some short vowels might be devoiced in japanese, depending on the dialect, but they are always present. This is a far cry from the twelve plus vowels in english that often change based on the accent of the speaker and the influence of surrounding sounds.
In fact, where english pronunciation is constantly in flux based on the sounds around it, japanese remains relatively untouched. japanese syllables can be linked for any length of utterance and be pronounced exactly the same as they would be were they split into individual units of meaning. This means that japanese speakers have a hard time with the way that english sentences alter the sounds of individual words as with, dont, and you, being pronounced dontcha when put together.
japanese is also pronounced with equal stress on all syllables and a generally narrow range of pitch. This can lead many japanese to speak english with a rapid-fire, emotionless-sounding manner. Without close attention to patterns of stress and intonation, it is difficult for japanese people to interpret many emotions buried in spoken english, like anger or sarcasm. Students also have trouble with words differentiated only by stress, such as, project and project.
Lastly, the japanese language itself consists entirely of V or CV units with the ? sound the only consonant ending possible. This means that english words ending in consonants are difficult for japanese people to pronounce. Often their instinct is to add vowels to consonant clusters (especially at the end of words) in order to make things easier to pronounce. This works well with other japanese people, but to other speakers of english these extra vowels can completely obscure the word.
This large number of differences between english and japanese does provide a difficulty for japanese ELL, but it is something that can be overcome. So why is it that so many japanese children that study japanese in school struggle with english pronunciation? As it turns out, many of these issues are further emphasized by the use of katakana. Primarily used to adapt foreign words into the japanese sound and writing system, the katakana syllabary is also widely used to help with pronunciation. Struggling students are often encouraged to take note of pronunciation by writing the katakana version of the word above the english spelling. While this may help with recognition, it severely hinders pronunciation.
Katakana words are limited to the japanese sound system so they cannot possibly be used to depict the nuances of the english language. Not only is the syllabary incapable of depicting the difference between /l/ and /r/ sounds or ending words in consonants besides n, but in order to compensate for the lack of sounds, katakana often equates certain english sounds with others, such as the infamous s and th pair mentioned earlier. For example, sat and that are pronounced identically through the katakana system. This establishes false allophones and hinders students pronunciation and reception abilities greatly.
Years of reliance on katakana pronunciation have gotten many students through the japanese educational system, but have also kept them from learning to pronounce english properly. For the many english language scholars in Japan, the differences between the two languages can be daunting. However, if they can immerse themselves in the sounds of english without relying on the crutch of katakana to carry them through, then I believe that many more students would find themselves capable of confidently navigating english pronunciation.
Much of the information given above was taken from my own experience acting as an assistant language teacher in japan
. However, I did also draw on the IPA information provided in Unit 13 as a basis of english pronunciation and the website below as a basis of japanese pronunciation.
Website courtesy of: Maddieson, I. 1984. Patterns of Sounds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.