Why I Think Japanese People Suck at Languages (Part 1)

Problems With the Japanese Phonetic Writing System

When Japanese tourists visit Korea, their nearest neighboring country, they like to order kimchi, spicy and sour pickled vegetables served as a side dish. Kimchi is Korea's national dish and Japanese people have been enjoying this dish since the mid 1970's. But something went wrong when my father and a group of Japanese people tried to order kimchi at a restaurant in Seoul last year. Despite their collective effort, they were not able to pronounce this word correctly. Their Japanese accent was just too strong to be understood by the Korean wait staff. 

So what exactly is a Japanese accent? Well, there are a few different ones, but the one I would like to talk about today is the lack of what I call "independent consonants". In the Japanese language, all but one consonant is followed by a vowel. So in the case of the word kimchi, it is the "m" sound in the middle that Japanese people have trouble pronouncing. They can do one of two things. Either ignore that consonant, pretending that it doesn't exist, or add a vowel. For example, the city Hong Kong is called ホンコン"Ho-n-ko-n", while the film King Kong is called キングコング "ki-n-gu ko -n-gu." In the case of kimchi, they added a vowel "u" (oo sound), pronouncing it Kee-Moo-chee. So when the Korean waiters heard "Kee-moo-chee", a three-syllable word, they simply didn't recognize what was being said.

But shouldn't Japanese still be able to pronounce the "m" sound if they can say "moo"? Yes, we Japanese people are physiologically capable of making that sound. However, it is how we think about the sound that makes it excruciatingly difficult. The Japanese phonetic writing system called “kana” does not have any symbols that represent just the consonants. The kana (both hiragana and katakana) characters originally came from Chinese logograms, and
each of these letters represents a syllable. Every kana is a simplified version of a Chinese character (漢字)and is a combination of a consonant and a vowel, except for the five short vowels (a, i, u, e, o). For example, the letter, which represents the sound "ki" (キ)comes from a Chinese character (機)meaning "machine" while the letter for "ko" (コ)is from a character which means “self” (己). These two phonetic symbols ki and ko have nothing in common visually. Therefore it is hard for a Japanese person to conceive of a consonant as an actual sound, let alone being able to recognize the sound upon hearing it independent of a vowel.

A good example of this is when trying to locate a McDonald's restaurant in Japan as an English speaking person. If you have ever been there, you know what I'm talking about. Asking an average Japanese person in the street "where is the McDonald's", would leave you to believe that the restaurant chain doesn't exist in Japan, despite the fact that there are over 3,000 of them all over the country. If you simply pronounce the name McDonald's, the only sounds that they are able to hear are "dona" and the sounds “Mc” and “ld's” are not detectable to them. For the Japanese, McDonald's is a six-syllable word, using six phonetic characters, マクドナルドma-ku-do-na-ru-do.

And to this day, I still remember feeling frustrated hearing the song "Old McDonald Had A Farm" blasted through speakers at my preschool in Japan. Even though they played this song on a daily basis, none of us preschoolers were able to fake-sing this song, even though most of us were capable of writing full sentences in Japanese using kana letters! And what's ironic is that it is as though by the age three, our brains had already mapped out such strong wiring for the Japanese  kana characters that everything we hear seems to get filtered through that mapping, allowing very few sounds through.

And this raises questions of what ifs. What if the Japanese used Hebrew alef bet (22 consonant letters with vowel markings), or Hangul, the Korean phonetic alphabet instead? Even though Hangul is a syllabic system, the each character actually contains different parts, making it possible to indicate a consonant-vowel-consonant combination. For example, the word Kimchi is spelled with two characters, 김치, the first one consisting of three parts, upper left is the “k” sound, upper right is the “i” (like eel) and the lower part is the “m”. Since the Korean language is mostly syllabic, Hangul allows much wider range and variety of sounds than the language requires. It sounds inefficient, but I think it can be useful when learning other languages. My speculation is that the structure of written symbols would affect the brain's wiring, making it possible to perceive the sounds of languages other than one's native tongue, making it easier to pronounce other languages regardless of familiarity or exposures. 

I therefore ask, “what if Japanese had learned to read and write their native tongue using alphabet system of some sort instead of the Japanese kana?” Would it make it easier for Japanese people to distinguish independent consonants, thus making it much easier to master English? The answer is no because this is only one of several challenges that we Japanese people face when trying to master another language.  (And I am planning to explain other problems in my future blogs.) But what I can say for sure is that transliteration of any foreign language into Japanese kana should have never become a standard practice. Why? Just imagine what your name would look and sound like on a Japanese paper? Have you ever heard of a famous jazz bass player se-shi-ru-ma-ku-bi-i? (セシル・マクビー)

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