イングリしゅ = English?

Coming to Japan and to an University for foreign language studies, I became quickly shocked, by the incapabilities of Japanese persons using English. Allthough all of them had english lessons from middle-school, which is not different from Germany, there language level may reach some kind of fluentness just after studying 4 full years at an university AND being abrought. At least for a German this is kind of ridiculous, because you will already study and interprete historic literature like Shakespeare in high-school, if you choose to focus on English. And actually I haven’t done this and I have never been a good student, but it can be expected, that German students are after high-school already better than most of the 1st and 2nd year’s here.

How can this happen in a country, that was and still is so highly influenced by America and where my nearly non-english-speaking hostparents just both go “lucky” if we find a free parking space? Actually I think there are a lot serious problems in the Japanese education system, but the worst for learning English will still be Katakana. I asked several Japanese persons, if they read the English text or the Furigana above when singing English songs at Karaoke and they all stated to read the Katakana… and all of them were English students… as well as they all couldn’t tell me if there is a place to buy English magazines and never even thought about this…

So I got some basic ideas what might be going wrong, but there was one major thing, I suspected next to stupid multiple-choice tests, in which you never learn to compose an sentence on your own, to be the case: Learning English with Katakana from the beginning! So I googled around for a while and found a very interesting article by Yukinori Tanamachi: Katakana and English loanwoards. In short it is about a Japanese guy, writing about Katakana, the phonetical readings, the differences to English, BUT and that is the really interesting part, also about the influence of Katakana on learning English and his own experiences with that. And it states exactely what I expected:

When Japanese students start learning English at twelve years old, they usually study its Katakana and English Loanwords pronunciation with the help of Katakana.

Furthermore the author is also talking about suggestions to change this and I think it is worthwhile talking about the, because I find them entertaining to some extent:

  1. Ban Katakana English in the classroom (rejected by the author with the remark, that the students use Katakana out of the classroom anyways)
  2. Each school should have a native speaker
  3. Students should know the difference between English and Japanese phonology
  4. Slight change in Katakana proposed by Shimaoka (e.g. ライト = light and right –> change to: ウライト = right and ヌライト = light)

Each school havinga native speaker is not a bad idea, but I actually can’t understand the need for that. It may change on an University level, but the basics of English can easily taught by a non-native speaker. Of course only if the teachers learned the rigth pronounciation first and not to rely on Katakana and even if they didn’t at school, this should definately not a problem to be included in their studies to be a teacher, shouldn’t it?

And I got some insights about the JET programe, which is exactely pointing at that idea. As I have heard, the English native speaker will lead the lessons, but will be daily and all the time instantly translated by the Japanese teacher. Thus resulting in Japanese students listening to Japanese all the time and not to the native English speaker. Don’t think that’s the purpose of the programe, but I can’t tell if it works that way everywhere or it was an exception for that person on that school.

The third suggestion, that students should know the difference between English and Japanese phonology makes me really laugh. Not because it is a bad idea, just because it is such a natural thing, that I can’t believe someone even has to suggest it as a solution. I actually thought, they would even know it now, but listening to students here day for day again, I am not sure anymore. They even ‘katakanize’ peoples names automatically. And the last idea might work out somehow, but it is more a fix of an already broken system, than a solution at all. Making the difference between Japanese English and real English slightly smaller doesn’t really help solving the problem.

So actually I don’t have a clue, why the Japanese can’t just ban Katakana from school. Yes the Katakana they use in Japanese are adopted FROM English but they are NOT English words, that is the first thing all students should learn. And it can be expected from teachers too, that they speak REAL English and if not, it should be at least part of the studies of the newest teacher’s generation.

But from time to time I just get the feeling Japanese people don’t want to learn real English. The whole concept of Katakana aims at keeping the own language free of external influence and if no being able to get rid of the influence, at least clearly marking foreign words with the Katakana and japanizing the pronounciation. Thinking about it I may even suggest getting rid of Katakana completely, because I can’t see benefits of this system. I mean yes, it is sometimes really annoying if I have serious problems writing “Portemonnaie(purse) in German, because it is a French word and we also have to learn to pronounce it the French way, but at least it doesn’t result in learning a native language and an artificial language no one can understand.

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