Teaching Pronunciation in Japan

Writer(s): 
Robert Smith, University Central Lancashire

An American twang is no match for a lyrical Irish accent. Yet there’s something irresistible about a Southern accent that conjures gentlemanly qualities. A London Cockney accent connotes liveliness. English spoken by a French actress oozes sexiness. Although no accent should be considered better or worse than another, some accents are judged to be more aesthetically pleasing than others because of the social connotations of the group of people who speak them. A rugged Scottish burr is seductive because of the men who speak in it: Sean Connery, Richard Madden, and Ewan McGregor. Unfortunately, many accents get a negative reception.

In this issue of Grassroots Outreach, Robert Smith suggests that pronunciation needs more attention in English language classrooms in Japan. Shyness to speak can be exacerbated if one’s foreign accent interferes with the speaking of the target language. To reduce anxiety and to motivate students to converse more often in English, Smith recommends students try to shake their use of katakana-sounding pronunciation. Japanese language phonology is very different from English and this can lead students to speak in a distinct Japanese-sounding accent. If left unaddressed, Smith warns that an accent problem can lead to poor spelling, unintelligibility, a reluctance to communicate with native speakers of English, and even discrimination when students travel overseas.

 

Teaching Pronunciation in Japan

Robert Smith, University Central Lancashire

Accents are one of several important elements that contribute to the intelligibility of speech. In this essay I posit that the Japanese method of pronunciation is a major barrier to effective communication in English. The fear of speaking English with a Japanese accent is a large factor in why Japanese learners of English lack confidence in their oral communication ability. Language learners with heavy accents tend to be poor spellers and those who go abroad can even suffer from discrimination.

The Japanese speakers of English with whom I’ve freely conversed with have spent time abroad in English-speaking countries. Although a number of them seem to have reading abilities at or below that of other learners of English whom I’ve met in Japan, their speaking abilities –and most of all– their willingness to speak English is at a much higher level than their peers. The reason for this soon became clear when I tried to encourage some of their lesser confident friends to say a few words (see Photograph). It’s an accent problem. The students who have spent time abroad speak in a more natural way, and often I can even tell where they have been by the way they pronounce certain words. Students who have never been abroad however, have often only encountered spoken English within their classroom learning environment and therefore their pronunciation is marked by a distinctive Japanese accent. Being self-conscious of one’s accent can make a student reluctant to speak, especially in the presence of native English speakers.

The accent problem seems to begin early on in the education process at elementary school levels, when Japanese katakana pronunciation is applied to the English vocabulary being taught. Words like ‘fan’ and ‘fun’ become indistinguishable from one another and longer more complex words are transformed into something that most native English speakers can’t properly decipher. Poor pronunciation carries over into poor spelling. Misspelling is a problem even for native speakers. A study by Kathryn Sutherland revealed that the British novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) wrote with a regional accent from Hampshire, coined the Hampshire Hog to the south of London. Her accent caused her to make numerous spelling mistakes in her manuscripts that had to be corrected by her editor, William Gifford (Caroe, 2010). In an effort to simplify the universal spelling of certain words in English, Wells (2003) claims, “All speakers of English, no matter where they come from, pronounce friend so that it rhymes with bend, send, tend. So a reformed spelling frend ought to be uncontroversial (1.1 par. 2).”

Having a strong Japanese accent when speaking English is not only a barrier to effective communication, but it can also become the target of discrimination for learners who go abroad. In England, it’s known as Engrish (somewhat resembling the way that some Japanese pronounce the word English) and is frequently ridiculed or at least seen as being somewhat comical. Ng (2007) found that some accents are labelled as being ugly or criminal. Japanese speakers of English who speak in this manner will likely not only be regularly misunderstood by native speakers of English, but might even become victims of accent discrimination. In England, where the country’s accents seem to be almost as diverse as the world’s languages, accent discrimination can be directed at native speakers just as much as it can be directed at non-native speakers. Research by Gluszek and Dovidio (2010) has linked the perceptions of different accents with their associated images, confirming that people with accents are judged as less intelligent, less competent, less educated, having poor English language skills, and as generally unpleasant to listen to. A Japanese learner of English who has been taught a correct method of pronunciation, however, is much less likely to be the victim of such discrimination. Many foreign accents within the English speaking world have stereotypes attached to them; unfortunately, many of these stereotypes are negative. Japanese learners of English who speak with a more standard method of pronunciation, whether it is American or British English can avoid stereotyping. Their accent may not be a native-like one but it will allow them to be free of the negative connotations associated with Engrish, while at the same time improving their ability to communicate verbally.

A fair share of the criticism about the current state of English education in Japan concerns the English ability of the students it produces. However, even amongst those who are reluctant to speak English, many learners of English in Japan seem to have reading and writing abilities above those of similarly-aged students of foreign languages in England. I have met very few people in my home country who can properly converse in the foreign language they studied at high school, even among those who graduated with high scores on foreign language exams. I speak with a Lancashire accent, commonly heard in the area of Preston where the University of Central Lancashire is located. Classroom based foreign language learning has its limits, and for many students (such as myself) a good understanding of grammar and some useful vocabulary might be the best we can get out of it.

Proposed longer teaching hours and improved training for teachers is certainly not a bad thing; however, to significantly improve students’ speaking abilities it seems to me that the accent problem has to be addressed. Instead of briefly skipping over pronunciation or relying on Japanese pronunciation when teaching English, care should be taken to ensure that a more standard method of pronunciation is achieved. And though the very idea of pronunciation classes may send some students straight to sleep, I have found that discussing accents tends to generate a lot of interest. Accents can be readily learned and taught. If introduced at an early stage, not only will students find it much easier to adopt correct pronunciation but the introduction of different accents into the classroom can present opportunities for some fun tasks while also creating awareness that not all English speakers sound the same. Actors are often called upon to speak varieties of language other than their own. In an analysis of the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts, Harrington (2006) has shown that accents can be changed at any age. Knowing this can help reduce any later anxiety one might have about their own accent and perhaps provide the extra nudge needed for some students to start speaking in a foreign language.

 

References

Caroe, L. (2010, October 23). How Jane Austen failed at spelling: Study shows author wrote in a ‘regional accent’ and used poor punctuation. Daily Mail. Retrieved from <dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1323056/How-Jane-Austen-failed-spelling-using-regional-accent-poor-punctuation.html>

Gluszek, A., & Dovidio, J. (2010). The way they speak: Stigma of non-native accents in communication. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14, 214–237.

Harrington, J. (2006). An acoustic analysis of ‘happy tensing’ in the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts. Journal of Phonetics 34(4): 439–57.

Ng, S. H. (2007). Language-based discrimination: Blatant and subtle forms. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 26, 106–122.

Wells, J. (2003). English accents and their implications for spelling reform. Retrieved from 

<phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/accents_

spellingreform.htm>

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