Pronunciation Problems: Japanese Students of English
All L1 groups have their stereotypical pronunciation problems. Those EFL teachers who have taught in the home country of their students will be well aware of those particular idiosyncrasies of that L1 group. I would like to outline an effective way of dealing with a certain pronunciation problem endemic to Japanese EFL students. For those who have taught in Japan, or have taught Japanese students you would be well aware of the lack of sensitivity to individual consonant and vowel sounds when speaking English, alluded to by Matsumoto (1988) as “katakana” pronunciation. Briefly outlining the differences in Japanese EFL learning styles to those of other L1 groups and how this affects pronunciation, this paper aims to introduce “one” successful technique for specifically helping Japanese students with this specific problem. In other words, here is a solution to that annoying vowel sound that is often tacked on to the end of most English words.
Hadley (2001, p.75) argues that until recently “conventional wisdom” in second language acquisition theories suggested that “the learners were a relatively homogeneous lot”. These assumptions have been re-thought as research in this field begins to highlight the differences among individual learners and between different L1 groups (Reid, 1998). Perceptual learning styles of pre-university ESL students were explored by Reid (1987), who used six learning styles, (kinesthetic, group learning, tactile, auditory, visual and individual learning) randomly arranged in five sentences. Most of the groups,divided by L1 did not show a preference for group learning but did however show a strong preference for tactile and kinesthetic learning styles. The most relevant and interesting point suggested in Reid’s research is the significant differences in learning preferences that Japanese L1 speakers showed compared with other language groups. This is particularly evident, Reid argues, in the fact that native Japanese speakers show less preference for kinesthetic and tactile learning styles when compared to the other L1 groups. In other words, teachers of Japanese EFL students should consider adapting their teaching methods to fit the learning styles of their students. In this case, the more analytical style of learning preferred by Japanese students (Oxford & Burry-Stock, 1995). If, as Harshburger et al. (1986) suggests, Japanese students really do favor highly structured, deductive classes, then the following mathematical-like method of correcting pronunciation should show some results.
Although this method is often not suited for producing the correct English pronunciation, for convenience, many Japanese use “katakana” for English pronunciation instead of international phonetic symbols. In this proposed method, the same “katakana” symbols are used in a mathematical-like formula to clearly show the distinction between individual vowel and consonant sounds. For example; the word “school” is often pronounced with an elongated vowel sound after the final “L”. By explaining to the students that the English pronunciation of this final “L” sound is the “katakana” equivalent of “[ル] minus [ウ]”, some students will be able to visualize the distinction they find difficult to hear.
Obviously this method must be used in conjunction with the usual “model-listen-repeat” technique. As the use of Japanese in an English class is not highly recommended, this is just one extra tool that an EFL teacher in Japan may be able to use to help their students.
Whilst this method may find many detractors due to the use of Japanese in the classroom, finishing with a reminder as to why as teachers we are here:
[m]any of the students we are consigning to the dust heaps of our classrooms have the abilities to succeed. It is we, not they, who are failing. We are failing to recognize the variety of thinking and learning styles they bring to the classroom, and teaching them in ways that don’t fit them well. (Sternberg, 1997 p. 17)
This method does not attempt to find a solution to all pronunciation problems but can be used to alleviate some of the problems associated with added vowel sounds attached to the end of words. I have found that even with intensive oral practice and drilling, many Japanese students of English still find great difficulty in identifying their own pronunciation problems in the above mentioned area.
Hadley, A. O. (2001). Teaching Language in Context. Boston.Heinle & Heinle
Harshburger, B. Ross, T. Tafoya, S. Via, J. (1986). Dealing with Mutliple Learning Styles in the ESL Classroom. Symposium presented at the Annual meeting of Teachers of English of Other Languages, San Francisco, CA.
Matsumoto, Y. (1988). Re-examination of the universality of face: politeness phenomena in Japanese. Journal of Pragmatics, 11 404-425
Reid, J. (ed.) (1998). Understanding Learning Styles in the Second Language Classroom. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Regents.
Reid, J. (1987). The Learning style preferences of ESL students. TESOL Quarterly, 21, 1, 87-111.
Oxford, R.L. & Burry-Stock, J.A. (1995). Assessing the use of language learning strategies worldwide with the ESL/EFL: version of the Strategy Inventory for Language Learning (SILL). System, 23, 2, 153-75.
Sternberg, R.J. (1997). Thinking Styles. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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