Why English learning fails in Japan: Reason #3
Note: This is the third of a series that will run for at least ten parts. However, readers' comments are welcomed and, where relevant, will be added as reasons in the main series, with full credit given.
Reason #3: Japanese is not written with an alphabet
Japanese is not written with an alphabet.
The writing system used to represent Japanese in continuous text is notorious for its complexity. Chinese characters (called kanji in Japanese) have been adopted and adapted to write Japanese. But one problem with Chinese characters is that they don't fit nicely onto Japanese. Chinese is a group of languages characterized, in part, as being 'mono-syllabic'. That is, one content morpheme of one spoken syllable in length is usually written in text with one character. However, Japanese is, unlike Chinese, highly inflected and multi-syllabic. Using Chinese characters to represent Japanese leads to syllabic and lexical opacity--one character might stand for one, two, three or more spoken syllables.
To make matters worse in terms of the complexity of written Japanese, Chinese characters are typically used to stand for different words or morphemes that may (or may not) cover some of the same semantic areas. For example, the same character might be used to represent two words or morphemes that are synonymous, even though their pronunciations are totally different. This explanation only hints at some of the complexities in adapting such a mismatched writing system to Japanese.
As written Japanese evolved, the Chinese writing system was modified and enhanced to make it more useful for full-blown Japanese texts. In order to help solve the opacity issue, two syllabaries have been put to use to complement the use of Chinese characters. These are called hiragana and katakana.
As these sets of written syllables are used today in written Japanese, hiragana (a cursive set of syllables) is used to write much of the multi-syllabic inflections and particles of the language. It is also often preferred over the use of the kanji for many high-frequency, everyday words and phrases. Clearly, the idea of using a word-level graph (such as a kanji) to write a language comes to Japan from China. But the use of syllabic graphs might come from India through the diffusion of literacy practices associated with Buddhism.
The other syllabary, katakana, captures in written form the same simplified, idealized syllables abstracted from spoken Japanese and captured in hiragana, but it is written with elements derived from kanji and displays the same sort of angularity. Katakana is typically used to write foreign loan words, especially non-Chinese ones. It is also used to represent the elements of Japanese vocabulary that imitate aural, other physical, and mental phenomena (what is called roughly 'onomatopoeia' in English, though it is much more extensive and developed in Japanese). It can also be employed to show emphasis, analogous to the way all caps or italics might be used in English.
Full-blown written Japanese will typically show mostly kanji and hiragana, with a smattering of katakana (unless the text was about foreign loan words, or was a menu at a western restaurant). A text of Japanese might also have quite a number of items in the roman alphabet (called romaji in Japanese) and Arabic numerals (though Chinese numerals are also often used).
But roman letters are rarely used to romanize Japanese, except in the case of synonyms like 'UN' or 'NATO' (which do have their own Japanese pronunciations in the spoken language). Romanization does happen in advertising and on shop signs. You are most likely to see words written in the roman alphabet in academic discussions where an English or other foreign word or phrase is placed in the text and then explained in Japanese.
Since most Japanese--the sort of language that would be spoken informally but also formally--is rarely put into alphabetic form (romanization). Most native speakers of Japanese are literate in their own language, which is largely not alphabetically written. They lack much familiarity or fluency with the writing and spelling conventions of English.
For example, most university students will struggle with a dictionary laid out in traditional alphabetical order (A to Z) because Japanese language dictionaries are typically put into a syllabic order. And one hindrance to personal computer use in Japan has been learner reluctance to interface with a computer using an alpha-numeric keyboard that looks totally alien in terms of the salient features of Japanese literacy. In other words, units of written Japanese refer to words and syllables, not sub-syllabic elements, like letter-to-sound correspondences.
Even though the JIS computer keyboard in use all over in Japan does incorporate aspects of Japanese literacy, it is still most quickly used for input in computing by those who can touch type using alphabetic units (which are then converted bottom-upwards to syllables and then, when necessary by convention, to Chinese characters). The majority of Japanese can not touch type and find the idea of alphabetically analytic input of language to be alien to their feel and grasp of their own written language in situations that require interaction with a computer or word processor program.
Japanese English learners, especially visually oriented ones, might feel that written English is simply too exotic and strange for them to process visually or analyze into meaningful language. English speakers often have the same reaction to written Japanese. Written English's complex spelling conventions are largely outside the writing practices of Japanese literacy, and, to the extent that those spelling conventions actually reflect a phonetic, phonological or morphological reality, they largely do not reflect anything similar to be found in Japanese.
Complicating this are some of the the linguistic peculiarities of English. In the previous installment, I asserted that it could be argued that English is a Germanic language in terms of its pronunciation, but its spelling makes it look like a Romance language. Well, both of these aspects are foreign to Japanese learners of English. Their language's phonology is not similar to a Germanic one, and their approach to writing and spelling conventions is not a Latin or Romance one.
Connecting with e-mail and to the world wide web only really took off in Japan once G2 and G3 mobile phones became ubiquitous. Little wonder then that the Japanese quickly took to web site addresses that are read like digital bar codes instead of ponderously typed in the standard http:// form.
Also, the interface of Japanese mobile phones is set up for quick syllabic level input and conversion of the content words to kanji. Roman letters are a tertiary system, beneath and much more limited than features for handling kanji and the two syllabaries. However, the linguistic habits of many Japanese have adapted to the need for speed in text messaging. For one thing, this has led to the increased use of roman-lettered acronyms to stand for conventionally shared and frequently used phrases.
Some people have even started complaining because these acronyms are taking on pronounced forms and invading the spoken language. Parents are often shocked when they listen to their teenage sons and daughters conversing in mobile phone acronymic 'short hand' at the dinner table. Such developments are interesting for the ongoing evolution of Japanese as a vital, modern native and national language of international importance in the high tech era. However, these changes will have little or no positive impact on English learning in Japan.