TEFL English Fluency and Pronunciation Problems in Japanese People

Japanese people are known to be well educated. In the case of English, most people have at least six years of English learning experience in school. However in reality, the majority of those people are not able to hold a short, basic conversation in English, even just a few lines of greeting. A language is a communication tool. If you cannot communicate with it, it is pointless to spend so much time and effort on learning it?

Thus, clearly something is ineffective in the way that English was taught in Japan to my generation or to the generations who are old enough to prove this inefficient result. In this article, I try to describe the problems that Japanese people have and the appropriate teaching aspects in terms of their English fluency and pronunciation, from the perspective of both a Japanese ESL learner and as an English teacher of Japanese students.

The underlining problem of English teaching method in Japan is that English is taught and learned within the framework of Japanese language. This could be because it is taught by the teachers who are not fluent English speakers themselves or because Japanese people are not used to accepting differences without any adaptation. But in any case, this way of teaching is causing tremendous difficulties on English fluency and pronunciation. English is a stress-timed language whose syllables have a much wider variety of onsets, codas, and combinations than many languages. English also has the widest range of syllable length and quality between stressed and unstressed syllables and a distinctive pattern of intervals between stressed syllables. These characteristics make it difficult for speakers of a syllable-timed languages such as Japanese to assimilate English speech rhythm. (1)

In Japanese language every letter is pronounced with a vowel, and the consonants and vowels do not get separated. The only consonant that is pronounced by itself is /n/. ??English consonants can be clustered together. The Japanese rhythm system does not allow such clusters, so the Japanese speaker tends to insert a vowel between them.?? (2) For example, ??desk?? will be pronounced as /?????]??]/. Also every syllable in a word, and every word in a sentence, is pronounced in Japanese. Therefore, the concepts of ??schwa?? and connected words in spoken English sentences are very unnatural. For instance, ??Have you done it again??? will be spoken like /????z??]?n????z?n??? ?z??n????????n???z?????/ by a Japanese speaker, while /??o??????z?n???????????/ will be what a native English speaker would say. And this differences leads into English intonation and fluency difficulties for the Japanese.

Some study shows that ??Japanese EFL learners tended generally to be narrow in pitch range and it was often difficult to discern what pitch pattern was being employed. This seemed to be an influence of a general characteristic of Japanese intonation.?? (3) Another study concludes, ??They were not aware of the different ways of highlighting the new and important part of the message between Japanese and English and just seemed to stick to the Japanese way.?? (4) Thus, Japanese people??s English intonation is not natural to the native ear. Therefore, it is difficult to be understood. In academic and business settings where English is spoken as the international language, Japanese people??s ideas and opinions tend to be taken less significantly than others, largely because their speeches are not intelligible enough to be well understood. This is a great disadvantage to many Japanese who work in the international settings, and many struggle trying to improve on their fluency of their English.

There was a study done at some university in Japan to prove the effectiveness of improving the English fluency of a Japanese man by focusing on his rhythm of speech. Unfortunately, I am not able to provide you with the referable information on this study, however, I was profoundly convinced that this is the best way to approach the English intelligibility problems of Japanese, especially for the adults.

Instead of focusing on the articulation of the individual English sounds, improving on the rhythm and intonation of the sentences is much more effective. ??The fact is that each language has its own rhythmic system, and it is not efficient to practice new sounds in the rhythm of the first language. (2) Therefore, first by focusing on the rhythm and intonation of English language, break the framework of their first language, as well as to make them realize the differences between the two language systems. Practicing on their appropriate rhythm in their speech, then focus on the articulation of a few crucial individual sounds. It is much more efficient in this way for the adult learners, because it is extremely difficult for them to acquire the new sound production placements since their mouth structure is set to their first language. Most of them are also intimidated and embarrassed to pronounce awkward sounds and make mistakes.

In conclusion, the best approach to the English fluency problems on Japanese people is that first to immerse them in authentic English rhythm with various means to have them recognize and become accustomed to the different language system and intonations, then to focus on the articulation of the individual English sounds.

Reference: (1) pageLabel=RecordDetails&ERICExtSearc...

(2) Newsletter for Teachers Learning With Children, JALT 2004


Author: Shizuka (Suzi) Kamij

Date of post: 2007-04-18