Thursday, November 4, 2010

lost in katakana

This was a weird box that I saw in Tokyo once. Not exactly katakana, but strange English nonetheless.

Part of my job as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) is to be a cultural ambassador. I help them learn more about the land of McDonald`s and Disney. I also help the Japanese English teacher with lessons and activities.

But I have to say that my most important job as an ALT is destroying katakana English whenever possible. I loathe katakana. Learning English is hard for any non-native speaker, but especially so for Japanese people. When they bring English words into their lexicon, they spell the words out phonetically with katakana characters.

Let me back up. Japanese doesn`t use letters to write out words like in English. They use Chinese characters (kanji) to represent sounds or whole words. So "tree" is 木 (pronounced like "key") in Japanese. One symbol, one word (although words are sometimes written with multiple kanji). They also use hiragana to write out sounds that can be stringed together to form words for which there is no kanji; "ki" is きin hiragana.

When foreign words are introduced into Japanese is when things get bad. Really, really bad. Japanese uses 100 syllables to comprise all of their words. English uses hundreds. To borrow a word from another language, the Japanese convert the sounds of the loan word into their closest approximate Japanese sounds.

So some words, like "merry," sound pretty much the same when transitioned into Japanese. Other words, like "stew," become some horrible bastardization of their original selves. "Stew" becomes "shi-chu" (シチュ).

It`s this strange conversion that spurred that whole "Engrish" stereotype. Most Asian languages don`t have an "L" or "R" sound; they have a sound that is somewhere in between the two, so that "river" and "liver" sound identical to them. My name in Japanese is "Em-i-ri" (エミリ). My students constantly write "pray" when they mean "play."

I find myself staring at menus, trying to figure out what the katakana means. I know that the word is English, that I have heard it somewhere, but my brain has to figure out which parts of the word are missing, and which parts have been retained by its katakanization. And then, after 5 minutes, I`ll figure out that the word they meant was "olive oil" (o-ri-bu-o-i-ru).

Since Japanese people are used to having katakana at their disposal to Japanize foreign words, it is difficult for them to hear some of the differences between English words. For example, my students can`t hear the difference between travel and trouble, crab and club, and lady and ready. Today, we were reviewing days of the week with one class, and they couldn`t even hear the difference between Tuesday and Thursday.

Vowel sounds are especially hard for my students. The sounds in "ball" and "bull" are the same to them. I find myself just putting my head in my hands during class sometimes because no matter how many times I say a word, the students just can`t hear all the little sounds in it. "Earth" is "Ah-su" (アース). "Power" has no r at the end; it is "pa-wa" (パーワ)to them.

I think that katakana is a major hindrance to Japanese people wanting to learn other languages. It gives people the impression that pronouncing all words in a Japanese way is okay. But in reality, a native speaker of English--who wasn`t used to Japanese English--would have a really hard time understanding someone speaking katakana English. And, as a foreigner in a foreign land, I find myself getting a little sad at the way the subtleties, the Englishness, of my language just seem to disappear. The way that one thing that is familiar to me becomes unfamiliar. Lost in katakana.

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