Is Katakana English Unnecessary?

Katakana Character ChartWe wouldn't know it by his name, but Michihiro Matsumoto has a problem with katakana, a Japanese character set that is mainly used when spelling words originating from a foreign language. An English education specialist, Matsumoto has been on a mission to combat something called "Katakana English," words that originate from English but are difficult for native English speakers to understand.

In 2001 he wrote a book on the subject and later help a symposium in Fukuoka. His main argument is that if Japanese people would learn real English from childhood rather than Katakana English, it would improve communication between Japan and the rest of the English-speaking world. Case-in-point would be a word like "furonto garasu" (front glass - フロントガラス) which, in English, is "windshield."

But is this really a problem?

Having lived and worked in this country for less than a year, I can't pretend to be an expert on all the crazy English that a native English speaker can find in this country, but I can tell you that working with Katakana English words can be just as foreign as words we find in the ubiquitously eloquent Japanese language.

I had thought that reading technical papers in Japanese would be relatively easy, as most of the papers seem to be replete with katakana. Unfortunately, this is not the case as standard computer terms like "hard drive" (haado disku doraibu - ハードディスクドライブ) and "wireless encryption algorithm" (無線暗号化アルゴリズム) become obtusely unreadable.

I look forward to the day I can actually read and speak in Japanese like a semi-literate adult. Saying I'm illiterate while my 29th birthday approaches is embarrassing.

Do We Need Katakana?

So if the incorporation of foreign words into the Japanese lexicon is rendered moot after the requisite adaptation to fit the requirements of katakana, why are the Japanese still using katakana? Everyone here can read romaji (the English alphabet), so wouldn't it make more sense just to use those characters and keep the original spelling of the word intact?

It's a question I've asked a few times, but never really heard an answer that makes any long-term sense.

Of course, there isn't much chance of katakana being phased out anytime soon. The character set is found everywhere in this country, and it would be far too costly to change over all the documents, signs, posters and everything else containing katakana to the more Western-friendly romaji character system. It's the same type of argument we hear when America is asked about their reluctance to use the metric system.

So if katakana is here to stay, at least for the time being, and Katakana English remains a standard for the next half-century or so, what can the Japanese education system do to give students a leg-up when learning the language?

Here's a novel idea: how about schools actually make their students actively use the language in classes?

English, for the most part, is not really spoken during most English classes in Japan. Students instead focus more on reading, vocabulary and grammar. Without any time to actively use the language they're investing so much effort into, how can educators seriously expect anyone to get around the problems introduced by Katakana English?

Foreigners Shouldn't Be The Reason For This Argument

People learning the Japanese language know there will be a steep learning curve, and our occasional confusion or frustration with Katakana English (don't get me started on the pronunciation of McDonald's - マクドナルド) shouldn't be used as part of the reason behind elimination of Katakana English. Instead, more focus could be placed on improving a system that has long been considered incomplete: English language education.

In Japan, students are expected to have six years of English language education by the time they finish high school. Considering how 98% of all post-secondary schools in this country tests a person's English ability as part of the entrance examination, one would expect that most students would have a functional knowledge of the language. Sadly, this is not the case.

Instead, students receive six years of passive English education, where the language is essentially lectured at them as though the subject were no different than physics or calculus. While this often creates a student that has a solid understanding of basic grammar and a decent vocabulary, it does nothing for being able to communicate with an English speaker. It's this reason that so many Japanese people later join English conversation schools where natives then focus primarily on speech rather than the other areas of language usage.

I'm not complaining about this last point, though, as both Reiko and I work at companies that offer English conversation. That said, one of the most common observations about customers of these language centers is the surprising level of English, or lack thereof, in recent post-secondary graduates.

A Different Caliber of Language Instruction

Learning another language is often a compulsory part of most educations around the world, and the practice certainly has its advantages. However, how many of us have been forced to take up a language that we don't particularly care to learn because we don't see the need in our future?

I'm sure that many of us can safely say that after a year or two of not using our alternative language skills, what little knowledge we had acquired is effectively gone, but it usually doesn't take much to bring back the very basics.

For this reason, the Japanese education system should really look at re-vamping their language instruction methods. Katakana English is fine, and it works well here because the Japanese people just don't use sounds the same way as their European counterparts. However, by offering some better language instruction and giving students the opportunity to actively speak the language in and around schools, the future generation of men and women will have a much better chance of communicating with any foreigners they may encounter.

English doesn't need to be hammered into the kids attending school, as that would just make them dislike the language more. However, by offering students the opportunity to speak and make pronunciation errors in the classroom rather than the real world, educators could do themselves a service while also taking a chunk out of the poorer quality English language schools that are operating in every corner of this country.

What do you think of Katakana English and it's pervasiveness in society? Is this really a problem like Michihiro Matsumoto believes?