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October 10, 2002

Don't Touch The Potatoes!

(Proper Pronunciation Doesn't Have to be a Mystery)

Cicely Anne Rude

In today's international climate, multilingualism is a valuable skill to have. Chinese is the world's most spoken language, but English enjoys the most internationally widespread use. Whether a first, second, or third language, English is used around the world for business, for the Internet, and for making friends. While there is no such thing as "perfect" spoken English, it is important to produce language that can be understood by others.

Last year, I flew from Fukuoka to Singapore on Singapore Airlines. On this airline, the flight attendants speak in rapid, fluent English with a hint of a British accent. On the five-hour flight, I was seated beside two Japanese girls. They might have been college students. When the flight attendant arrived to offer us drinks, the two girls tried to order "painappuru jusu". The flight attendant didn't understand them. They tried again with "kohee" and were again met with failure. They finally gave up and were served the same food and drink that I ordered all the way to Singapore. I wanted to help without appearing pushing or rude, but that isn't the point. The point is that this sort of problem doesn't have to happen!

Studies have shown that although students in Japan study English for three years in junior high school, 3 years in high school, and then possibly more at university, comparatively few of them can actually communicate in spoken English. As an English teacher in Japan, this is the biggest problem that I faced and there are many possible reasons for it. For example, Japanese students spend a great deal of time writing, and memorizing, but very little time speaking English. However, there is a deeper, more serious issue that prevents most Japanese students from being able to read and speak English effectively: although they memorize copious amounts of grammar rules, most of them don't learn to pronounce and hear the basic sounds used in the English language.

Unfortunately, studying grammar translation and then trying to speak a new language is like collecting far more tools than you could use in an entire construction career, and trying to build a house with no building materials. Before I arrived with an armload of phonics teaching materials, my students had been memorizing English words as they would Kanji characters and speaking their Japanese sound-equivalent. Thus, they learned to pronounce such useful phrases as "hotta imo ijiruna?" which is a rough approximation of the sound of "What time is it now?" and can be loosely (and humorously) translated as "gathering untouchable potatoes".

Some texts used to require students to memorize the sentence, "My brother has a letter." Of course, without learning to recognize and produce the sounds used in English, they said, "mai buraza hazu a reta". I've met middle aged men who still remember that sentence from junior high school, not because they have ever used English to discuss their sibling's postal correspondence, but because "buraza" sort of doubles as the Japanese pronunciation of "brassiere". The men I know don't wear brassieres let alone keep letters in them (at least, not to my knowledge), but they love to repeat that sentence anyway.

Although a lively discussion about bras and potatoes can make for an interesting hour, my all-time favorite Japan-English phrase is the one that I hear most often. Since the "th" sound does not exist in Japanese, it usually replaced by "s" in the study of English language. As a result, when someone wants to say "thank you" to me they say "san kyu". Incidentally, "san" means three in Japanese and "kyu" means nine. Extreme gratitude is expressed by saying "san kyu beri machi", which of course means three nine berry town.

When we learn our first language as children, we hear it spoken around us constantly. Hence, we grow up with an inherent understanding of its basic sounds. When learning a second language, we must learn to recognize new sounds. It is impossible to speak a language without learning the sounds used to construct it, regardless of how much grammar you study. Japanese students CAN learn to say "pineapple juice" instead of "painappuru juusu", but not if we don't teach them how.

Educators need to give Japanese students the tools that they need to really speak English. Until English is widely taught in Japan as the phonetic language that it is and students learn to read, recognize, and reproduce English sounds, they might pass their entrance exams but they are doomed to speak Japan-English. They will always have letters stuck in their bras, so to speak. At any rate, three nine berry town for reading my tirade on English education. Don't touch the potatoes!

Cicely Anne Rude
Cicely Anne Rude was a JET ALT in Ushibuka City, Kumamoto Prefecture from 1999-2002. She currently teaches ESL and Japanese to junior college students in California. She is also the author of "Eigo-To-Go!", a book of lesson plans and advice for English teachers in Japan. The first edition was published by AJET and the second edition is available on-line at www.eigo-to-go.com.

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