Friday, April 13, 2007

Katakana English

Yes, I can type in Japanese. This is the name of a former American sumo wrestler.

In Japan, there are four types of written expression which I want to offer a thumbnail (simplified) explanation of as a background for the story to follow since a lot of my readers live outside of Japan.

The primary and most complicated form is kanji. Kanji have their roots in China but the Japanese read them a different way and have multiple ways of reading the same characters. The second system is hiragana. This system is used to write words for which there are no kanji or simply to phonetically write words represented by kanji (furigana). The third system is katakana which is ostensibly used to write foreign words that have been adapted for Japanese use or understanding (such as western names) but it is not infrequently used to represent Japanese words as a way of getting attention in advertising or on signs. The final system is romaji which is the roman alphabet we use in English-speaking countries.

As an aside, I will mention that some people ask me why I don't learn to read Japanese. The truth is that I can read hiragana and katakana and the kanji that I frequently encounter such as the names of places in Tokyo. However, learning kanji is a very daunting experience and takes a tremendous commitment as my friend Joseph has been experiencing. Such a commitment is only worthwhile if you plan on living in Japan forever or making a career out of translation and neither of these are a part of my plans.

With that long-winded primer out of the way, I want to talk about an incident one of my students experienced as a result of the use of English adapted for Japanese use. My student purchases what is called "lip cream" (リップクリム) in Japan and wanted to get some in the U.S. when she was off on a ski trip. She was in a shop with her host family and told the mother that she needed some lip cream. The ever helpful mother ran off to get some and came back with lipstick. My student told her host mother that what she wanted was colorless so the ever obliging host mother came back with a tube of lip gloss. My student then explained that she wanted something which would stop her lips from getting dry. The host mother said, "so, you want Chapstick," to which my student replied, "no, I don't want chopstick." Finally, the miscommunication got cleared up and my student got her "lip cream" (Chapstick).

This incident illustrates one of the things you learn pretty quickly as a teacher in Japan. That is the fact that katakana English can often make understanding or pronouncing English as it is spoken in English-speaking countries harder for students as it's much more difficult for them to shake their grasp of "Japanese English". They assume the katakana words are relatively accurate representations of the words in English-speaking countries when they often are not in terms of either pronunciation or actual meaning (as was the case with "lip cream").

To give another example, the Japanese pronunciation of "T.V." is "terebi" (テレビ). One of my students always pronounces "T.V." in the Japanese way when he talks about it. Even though I correct him each time and he knows it is wrong, he cannot shake the katakana pronunciation. In almost all other cases, he does not suffer from this problem and he never speaks Japanese in his lessons except for words that are commonly written in katakana in Japan.

On the flip side, katakana English makes life easier for foreign residents. Once you understand how Japanese phonetics work and how they are applied to English words, you can read and understand almost everything written in katakana instantly since you know there's a high likelihood that the words are in English already. That's not to say all of them are English though.

Some katakana words are from other languages such as "arubaito" (アルバイト) which is derived from the German word "arbeit" (work). In Japan, it's used to refer to part-time jobs. Since many Japanese students of English assume all katakana words are English, those words derived from other languages introduce another problem because students assume they are English words.

All in all though, the adaptation of foreign words into Japanese makes communication between us easier. You'd be surprised how often one can be saying something in Japanese and use a katakana-ized version of an English word for which one does not know the correct Japanese and be understood from altered English alone.


Roy said...

Someone recently asked me how long I've been in Japan and when I said almost 20 years, they replied "Oh, so your Japanese should be as good as a 20 yr old" It made me depressed ;-)

As a Linguistics major may I also add that ROMAJI is one of the reasons why some native English speakers have bad Japanese pronunciation. For example, there is no "r" equivalent in Japanese and the proper "ra ri ru re ro" pronunciation is actually closer to "da di du de do" and the sound represented by "u" in Japanese has less lip rounding than "u" in English. People should never learn Japanese using romaji.

Shari said...

While I realize such comments are probably made somewhat tongue in cheek and aren't meant to be offensive (I think), they do show a certain lack of depth of consideration.

A 20-year-old Japanese person has spent 12 years being educated in Japanese language. You've spent your time working full-time and pursuing other interests (such as web design, photography and writing your blog). It's also a lot easier to learn languages as a child. I have a student who lived in the U.S. until she was 3 and you can really see how she has an ear for English that people who learned English either only in Japan or later in life do not have.

You make good points about using romaji for learning Japanese. I guess it's the flip-side of learning English via katakana. Just as you can't really know proper English using a Japanese phonetic alphabet, you can't learn proper Japanese using an English alphabet.

Leo said...

Furigana?! Ooooh, so that's why she's writing that. My Japanese language teacher always writes small (I sit in the back row) hiragana next to the Kanji. I thought she was being nice for us slackers...I mean students.

Roy, Thanks for the tip about pronouncing "ra ri ru re ro". While we started using hiragana and katakana, I still have trouble pronouncing that set.