Japan is my home, and its beautiful language, the Japanese language, brings back warm childhood memories as if its beautiful sounds could melt time at will; But as beautiful as melodious as it is, we somehow misunderstand katakana changing its meaning, and confusing katakana with English.
And it was during this last summer that my nemesis, katakana, and I engaged in frenzy battles.
At work, I entered the room full of expectant faces; they all looked at me with anxiety. I could sense their nervousness without “reading the air” (空気を読むkūki o yomu), I smiled at them trying to break the ice and I following my motto “when in Rome, do as Romans do” I decided to sacrifice precious lessons minutes of class to introduce myself, my likes and dislikes; telling my students about the random things I love doing.
“My name is Yoneko, I love sewing, and I love cooking,” I started.
Excuse me, Shiraishi-san, what does that word mean,? someone asked
“Which word,? I asked “Sewing?, perhaps?,” I tried replying
“No, the word you said before that,” he said
“Oh, you mean love,” I answered only to be welcome by ghostly silence.
I tried saying “love” again with more emphasis. But again their blank expressions told me I was getting nowhere. So I tried again this time but with the katakanize version of love = rabu (ラブ）Then I saw understanding blossoming in their eyes like sakura flowers in warm days.
I spent the summer traveling and lecturing in various places in the island, facing the same conundrum, as soon as I said the word love; using its English phonetics love「lʌv」I was received with clueless stares, but as soon as I used the katakanized version of love 「rabu」(ラブ in katakana) people understood what I was saying. In the summer of 2018, I traveled around the country lecturing 150 people from which 140 people didn’t understand the proper pronunciation of the world love favouring its katakanize version instead.
This made me understand that we not only misuse katakata when it comes to borrowing words from other languages but what’s worst, we think our katakanize pronunciation of English words are actually English pronuntiation.
As I mentioned in one of my posts on consult-culture.com, misunderstanding katakana “as most Japanese speakers will keep using the katakana pronunciation when speaking English because, as aforementioned, Katana is the alphabet that helps us understand sounds we are not familiar with, we rely on it. Therefore, some people, as it is logical, trust that the sound katana is providing us, it is the sound in the original language, which is, unfortunately, not always true” Indeed, not always true, if we keep relying on katakana as if holding onto a crutch to avoid a false move, we would never actually reach port, furthermore, I would like to assure you that making mistakes are an important, if not vital, part of learning. Do not feel afraid to make mistakes, because those students who make mistakes are the bravest of all.
But I do understand the apprehension to speak English and not to make mistakes, after all, the Japanese language has a very specific set of rules that must be followed in order to make the message clear to the listener, but remember those rules do not apply to English.
Moreover, the hesitation of Japanese people when learning a language can be traced to their cultural characteristics.
In the graph above we can see six cultures dimensions (hofstede-insights.com) in which the hesitation of making mistakes can be understood in the dimension of uncertainty avoidance according to Professor hofstedes means “The Uncertainty Avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity”. Thanks to Professor Hofstedes we can understand in depth the hesitation of Japanese people, when exposed to the unknown and new, and this also allows us to create teaching methods suitable for our students.
・James Stanlaw Hong Kong University Press 2004
・Tina Wells “Easy katakana” Passport books 1989
・そのまま通じないカタカナ英語のミス James H.M Webb 1988
・Yoneko Shiraishi “Misunderstanding katakana” @consult-culture 2017