09 December 2009

TEFL FORUM: Do Japanese EFL students need 'katakana eigo' to learn and to read English?

This is a re-post of an article published in September this year in order to put it with the recent 'TEFL Forum' and give it a bit more prominence. Please note that this article includes three suggested classroom activities at the end of the discussion.

Do Japanese EFL students need 'katakana eigo' to learn and to read English?

by Charles Jannuzi, University of Fukui, Japan


'Katakana' is one of two syllabaries used in modern written Japanese; it is largely used to represent non-Chinese loan words, such as the numerous English loan words in Japanese called 'gairaigo'. It is also used in some contexts to stand for native onomatopoeia and other mimetic language, to show emphasis in a written text, to transcribe the readings of Chinese characters in legal documents, to provide a quickly input language for telegraphy, and to represent the popular names of animals and plants in native taxonomy, among other uses. However, katakana also finds widespread use in EFL in Japan in classrooms and materials as 'katakana eigo', which is a syllabic transliteration of English into a form that is more easily decodable for learners.

For the sake of this article's discussion, teacher attitudes toward katakana eigo can be summarized as the following three:

1. Katakana eigo is bad, and we should ban it.
2. Katakana eigo is not particularly useful, but it is part of the cross-lingual (L2 to L1)
reality, still let us not encourage it.
3. Katakana eigo is a useful crutch; helping students as a cognitive bridge to literacy in
EFL, so let us adapt it appropriately.

In this article I will explain why learners feel that katakana eigo is necessary in order to deal with the complexity and inconsistency of written English, and I will explain how teachers can plan and use content, materials and activities that will alleviate the need for such L1 crutches.

Katakana eigo: Is it natural?

It is natural for beginners to make substitutions and simplifications with the FL's sound system and sound tactics. Nonnative/JSL/JFL speakers of Japanese (many of them English teachers in Japan) are no different on this point. It is also a matter of course that students might take a very familiar, consistent, phonologically transparent, syllabic script like katakana and use it to transcribe a language written in one that is not so easy to decode for pronunciation (like the complex, alphabetic writing conventions of English). It does seem possible, though, that a persistent reliance on katakana eigo during beginning levels of instruction reinforces the idea that English does not have its own sound system and sound tactics. The impression that beginners might get is that the sounds and sound tactics of English are easily fitted into those of Japanese; they are not, not if intelligibility is to survive.

In standard phonological accounts, spoken Japanese has far fewer sound segments than English, and simpler tactics are used for putting these sounds together into syllables and words. A typical Japanese syllable is V or CV type; few consonant sounds can close a syllable, and there are not many consonant clusters. A writing system such as katakana that is based on an analysis of the syllable types of spoken Japanese, therefore, proves an ill fit for spoken English. What is at issue is the mental, phonological representations of the FL in the minds of the learners which enable them to learn and use it.

Here are two examples of how katakana eigo renders English into a Japanese form. Take the word 'banana'. In Japanese, this word would be written as three syllabic characters,, which we can romanize as ba-na-na. In this case the written Japanese corresponds perfectly with the English (though note, the Japanese form of this word would be given fairly even stress across all three syllables, while the English word typically receives the strongest stress on the second syllable with fairly neutral vowels in the first and final syllables). But look what happens with a second example, 'McDonald's'. In Japanese, this would be written as, which as romanized is ma-ku-do-na-ru-do. Now, both the words 'banana' and 'McDonald's' are well established loan words in modern spoken Japanese, and, as such, the nativized pronunciations of these for spoken Japanese are perfectly legitimate. But it is easy to see from these two examples what might happen to English words in an EFL setting if students used katakana to make target vocabulary more easily 'decodable'. If a word has a similar syllable structure to Japanese (V or CV), then the effects are not so profound. In the case of a word like 'McDonald's', the English word with three syllables becomes a six-syllable word with all open syllables and extra, intruded vowel sounds.

Is it possible that once such word forms are learned for EFL, that they make a lot of vocabulary of English largely incomprehensible? First, students, having learned the Japanized version of a word, may not recognize it while listening (or even reading, if they find the katakana for more easily memorized than English spelling). Second, if students produce such forms, are most English speakers outside of an EFL classroom in Japan going to understand them?

Next, let us turn to possible solutions that we might consider for teaching methods and materials. If katakana eigo is banned in class, this decision is a school's departmental or teacher's choice. However, we must also remain aware of two separate parts of linguistic reality in Japan, where English is both an important source of loan words and a much-studied FL. First, students are still going to make sound substitutions from Japanese and their own developing interlanguage when speaking and reading English out loud.

It is a natural linguistic phenomenon for beginners to struggle with the phonology of English when they start to learn the language. Construction and internalization of a FL's phonology goes along step-by-step with development in things like vocabulary and grammar (though sometimes the steps are backwards and not always forward). Second, English loan words become visible and usable in Japanese because they have been transcribed into katakana eigo form. Teachers working in an EFL environment have to recognize and affirm that there are quite legitimate processes going on when their students' L1 acquires a loan word from English. Moreover, it is expected for someone to use the L1's pronunciation of English loan words when speaking the L1 (including native English speakers when they speak Japanese).

Is Phonics a Possible Solution?

Phonics often refers to a set of methods for teaching beginning literacy to native English speakers, bilinguals and ESL learners in countries where English is the dominant language. In such methods teachers typically emphasize the rule-like nature of spelling-to-sound correspondences through direct instruction and practice. To many critics, the problems with phonics include the following: (a) too much emphasis on explicit rules and teacher-centered instruction of them, (b) a simplistic view of the nature of written English's complex and irregular spelling conventions, and (c) behaviorist drill and practice separated from real language use and meaning.

Given such problems, it might seem difficult to reconcile phonics methods with constructivist, student-centered, communicative EFL instruction. However, let us consider a different view of what phonics might be since it will help us to integrate phonics into our both our philosophies as well as our real world teaching. Goodman (1993) writes:

Phonics is always both personal and social, because we must build relationships between our own personal speech . . .the speech of our community and the social conventions of writing. It is always contextual because the values of both sound and letter patterns change in the phonological, grammatical and meaning contexts they occur in. And it's never more than part of the process of reading and writing. For all these reasons, phonics is learned best in the course of learning to read and write, not as a prerequisite. In fact, our phonics is determined by our speaking, listening, reading and writing experiences.(p. 51)

If we can agree with Goodman here, then we can see that phonics is not a set of simple rules for letter-to-sound correspondences "reversed engineered" from written English that teachers can then present and drill in to students. Rather, phonics is a complex system of relationships that the learner as reader and writer builds up and internalizes mentally; much like the other parts of a learner's FL language system, it could be said to exist only when language is being used in some way to make meaning.

A Few Notes on the Spelling of English

One of the reasons why doubts about phonics as something teachable arise has to do with the nature of English orthography and the ways it might be processed and read in real written text. The first fact that confronts us is inescapable: a simple alphabet relates one symbol with one categorical sound (sound segment, phoneme or phone). But the version of the Roman alphabet used to write English has only 26 letters, far short of the number necessary to represent spoken English's list of 44 to 48 sounds in simple one-sound-to-one-symbol conventions. This means that, while English is written alphabetically, these conventions are not limited to simple one-letter-to-one-sound correspondences. The second fact only makes matters seem worse: not only are the conventions complex, but there is a great deal of irregularity and inconsistency (more so than written French even, another literary language known to deviate from simple phonetic principles).

One reason for the complexity is that, at least in part, the spelling patterns do capture phonological aspects of the spoken language, but since there is a shortage of roman letters for English sounds, the conventions are by necessity complex. However, how do we account for the inconsistencies and irregularities? Historic and linguistic reasons can be given: at one time the writing conventions for writing Anglo-Saxon and British Danish were fairly phonemic, but these traditions died out and so are not really continuous with written English as we know it today. Then Norman French, after 1066, brought with it French spelling conventions and massive amounts of Latinate vocabulary.

Next, the subsequent age of mass literacy and printing accompanied the true emergence of modern English as a world language. During this period, English's strange mix of spelling conventions -- after infusions of even more Latinate vocabulary from writers such as Milton and exotic spelling conventions from Dutch printers and typesetters -- became frozen in place more or less. Written English curiously upholds both phonemic/phonological and etymological principles (the latter being a striking parallel with modern French). Most words have not lost their sound shapes in their written forms, but often spellings are stable across word roots, even though internal vowels change. For example, compare the stable spellings and unstable pronunciations of the related lexical roots of these words: phone, phonic, phonological, telephony, etc.

The tendency is for the complex processes of lexical derivation and grammatical morphology in English to produce many changes in pronunciation of syllable-internal vowel sounds while the spelling conventions refer more often consistently to word roots. It is this mix of conventions that leads some to theorize that English could be read at a word level in mature, fluent reading processes.

Ways to Cope in the Classroom

It may well be the case that written English as it is actually read, written and spelled forces the literate language user to juggle phonological and word-level principles. However, there is also the possibility that beginning literacy--especially in a SL or FL, where so much vocabulary is encountered for the first time in print, not speech--has to be more dependent on phonological processes in reading. The good news is that the spelling conventions for the English consonants sounds, while complex, are fairly consistent. The true source of difficulty is more centered on how the vowels of English are written.

Here are three activities that teachers can run with beginning to lower intermediate level learners of all ages to practice and reinforce phonics, pronunciation and phonological skills related to beginning EFL learning and literacy.

Activity One: Pronunciation and Phonics Crambo (an adaptation of a traditional spelling game)

1. Preparation: Go through student word lists (e.g., the lexical part of the syllabus of a course book) and select words that fit major and minor spelling patterns. Also, choose key sight words (which are also a major part of a beginner's vocabulary). Think of other rhyming words that students may not know, but that fit the patterns that the course vocabulary illustrate.

2. Preteaching: Explain/show what an English rhyme is, as Japanese students may have difficulty with the concept. Young learners especially may be quite open to language play, but their linguistic sense of it will be geared to the characteristics of Japanese, not English. Rhyme is one of these characteristics on which English and Japanese (but also Romance languages like Spanish and Italian) differ greatly. Show them how words can rhyme and have the same spelling pattern: e.g., time, lime, dime, etc. Also show them how words can rhyme but have totally different spellings: e.g., time, rhyme, climb. You can also show them how common sight words complicate matters still further: two, you, who.

3. Divide the class into teams. I have used this activity a lot for classes that could be divided into two teams, but more teams than that are possible. Two players from each team can come to the board. One will write for their team, while the other can relay information from the rest of the team members. This activity can be run having students rely solely on memory, or they can be encouraged to use textbooks, glossaries and dictionaries for the words they will need. Begin play by announcing a key word and writing it top, center on the board. Repeat the word several times. The first team to write a correct rhyme wins a point. Continue play with different team members rotating for each round. Emphasize that this is a team effort, so the members who are at their seats should give assistance to the two at the board.

4. Variations: Practice words that have the same vowel sound but do not rhyme. Or words that begin or end with the same target sound, such as problem sounds like /r/ or /l/ (in this case you will want only to say the key word several times and not write anything on the board).

Activity Two: Spelling Concentration (an EFL adaptation of Concentration)

1. Construct a set of word cards from large pieces of cardboard (I have used A4 and B4 sizes). On one side of each card print a key word. The words on the cards should be organized so that there are matching pairs of rhyming words or words that share the same internal vowel sounds (e.g., same soundsame spelling, same sounddifferent spelling, selected sight words). For example, in one set of cards I matched in non-rhymes, five pairs of short vowels (bad-cat, bed-pet, sit-tip, not-top, cut-cup), five pairs of 'long' vowels (ate-day, feet-heat, kite-sight, note-boat, room-tune), and three pairs with other vowels (out-town, loop-soon, boy-oil) for a total of 26 cards. After you have written all the key words on the cards, shuffle the deck thoroughly, then number the cards at random on their reverse sides, from 1 to 26. Tape or magnetically fix the word cards to the blackboard with the numbered sides showing.

2. This game works best if played between two teams, but team sizes should be kept down to groups that are small enough for all to participate. If you team teach, you might want to split up a large class and run two different games. There is not a lot of preteaching required for this game if the previous activity has already been done (teaching what words rhyme, how they might share an internal vowel, how they might begin or end with the same sound, etc.). You might want to run a demonstration round to show how the Concentration game will go.

3. One of the two teams must begin play; this can be decided at random since going first does not increase the odds of winning. The side that starts picks any two cards by calling out their numbers (this also gives beginners a chance to say the numerals in English out loud in real communication). The teacher (or appointed M.C.) turns the cards over so that they display their key words. The teacher says the words out loud several times so that the whole class can hear. If the two words on the cards match according to the teaching point of the game (e.g., rhymes, internal vowel sounds, initial sounds, final sounds, etc.), the two cards are taken down and given to the side that chose them. If cards are won, play continues with the same side getting the chance to call out two more numbers. The turn changes if two cards are turned over but the words do not match. Keep playing until all the cards have been matched and given to a side.

4. Hint on making this game work: point out to the teams that they need to split up memorization duties among their members; however, do not let them keep any written notes.

Activity Three: Phonics Snap (an EFL adaptation of the card game, Snap!)

1. Prepare a list of words from student vocabulary. Select these words on the basis of the spelling patterns they illustrate (for example, the most basic patterns of the five short vowels and the five long vowels). Think of words that both rhyme and illustrate the same spelling patterns and add them to the list (they may be from previously studied vocabulary, or they can be new words that should be decodable if phonics skills are used). Using the words you have collected, construct a set of 72 cards, one word on each card. The object of this game depends on randomly matching rhyming words, so be sure to include a large number of only a few rhymes (for example, a deck that is limited to the major patterns for the five long vowels). In short, this game does not work if there aren't enough examples of each rhyme. Because of the complexity of English spelling, it is possible to construct games to emphasize many different points. Some possibilities might include: rhymes with the same spelling, rhymes with different spellings, or rhymes with various spellings along with an occasional sight word, which should always come from known vocabulary (for example, eye might be matched with pie, my and buy).

2. This game is best played in pairs. Decks for an entire class could be used while the teacher checks how students are doing. Also, the teacher could play this game with a student who needs extra practice with English spelling and pronunciation. Team teaching would allow for this game to be used with a larger class. The two teachers could demonstrate it better, and they could cover more of the classroom when helping students learn to play it.

3. Have students form pairs. Distribute one deck of cards to each pair. After shuffling and dealing the cards (face down), one player begins play by placing their top card face up on the desk and pronouncing the word (e.g. 'light'). The other player then lays a card on top of the previous one and pronounces it (e.g. late). Play continues in turn until a rhyming card has been laid on top of the previous one (e.g., seen then bean). At that instant, the first player to recognize the rhyme and say 'Snap!' wins all the cards that have been laid. Players should not cheat by looking at their cards before they lay them, a point that should be stressed when the game is demonstrated and monitored. Players keep doing this until one player has won all the cards.

4. Other principles could be practiced with this game; for example, the same internal vowel sound in nonrhyming words ('feet' and 'bean').


It is understandable that students would want to resort to using katakana transcriptions of English to make the language they are studying clearer for decoding into pronunciations. Also, it is perfectly legitimate when this process is used to bring English loan words into Japanese. However, katakana eigo is of limited use for beginning literacy in real written English, and may well hinder language development, since it distorts perceptions of English pronunciation. Phonics can be used to lessen the need for things like katakana eigo, but it must be remembered that phonics is not simply some neat set of rules that teachers give to students. Rather, just as with the acquisition of any generative, patterned, rule-like aspect to a language, students must be given the opportunities to build up skills and abilities that they can actually apply to understanding and making meaning in the FL. Activities such as the three outlined in this article should help teachers to do just that.

Goodman, Kenneth S. (1993). Phonics phacts. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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