Katakana is not English

Sandra J. Smith, Hiroshima Suzugamine Women's College



  • Key Words: Pronunciation, Vocabulary
  • Learner English Level: Intermediate to Advanced
  • Learner Maturity Level: Jr. High School and above
  • Preparation Time: about 20 minutes
  • Activity Time: 5-15 minutes each class


Have you ever experienced teaching Japanese children new vocabulary by holding up picture cards, only to hear them chorus pan! when you hold up the picture of a loaf of bread? Or perhaps one of your older Japanese students, acquaintances, or colleagues recently told you that they had purchased a pasocon. If you are a cyclist of any degree of enthusiasm, have your students expressed interest in the motor size of your baiku ?

All of these situations arise because of the nature of Japanese words written in katakana, (the Japanese syllabary used to write foreign words) and the widespread assumption among native Japanese speakers that these words are, in fact, English. When I began teaching in Japan, I was unaware of this assumption--to me the Japanese and English words were clearly different. Once I realized how often my students used katakana words as bonafide English, I determined a method of alerting them to the differences in meaning and pronunciation between the Japanese and English vocabulary. My students have expressed quite a bit of interest in learning these differences and have participated in the following task with enthusiasm.

Introduction to the Task

At the beginning of the semester, I tell the class that there is a very important message about English that I want them to think about every day. I ask them to take out a red pen (or purple or green--something different than what they usually use), and to write the following message in large letters on the front of their notebooks or on any paper or book that the students will see regularly in class. I then write on the chalkboard or whiteboard "Katakana is not English." With some classes, depending on the level, age, and interest in this kind of game, I play "Hangman" and have students guess the message. If you have time and your class enjoys word games, I recommend Hangman as a way of getting them more personally involved in the "Important Message."

I then explain what I mean by the message, giving examples from my own experience similar to the ones written in the introduction to this article. Students are usually delighted by the stories, and often comment that they have sometimes made similar mistakes.

Next I tell the students that at the beginning of every class we will study katakana vocabulary for a few minutes to learn the correct spelling and pronunciation in English. I begin by writing one word in katakana (romaji, the English alphabet, could also be used) on the board and asking them how to pronounce it in Japanese. The word salada (salad) works very well for this first demonstration. I ask for the English spelling, which often is given with an extra "a" at the end. This is an opportunity to review the main differences in word endings in Japanese and English. Once the spelling is correct, I tell the class the standard pronunciation (North American and British), and ask the students to repeat it several times. In this example, the change in vowel sound in the first and second syllables needs highlighting, as most students will pronounce "salad" with an identical vowel in each syllable.

Following the demonstration, I ask students to think of one example of a katakana word, to look up the correct spelling in their dictionaries, and to share their word with their partner. As they complete this part of the activity, I select four or five students to come to the board and write their words in katakana and English. I ask the class to keep one page in their notebooks for a "Katakana List" which they will add to every week, and to begin their list with the words on the board. We then study each word briefly, following the procedure outlined in the "salad" example above. I tell the class that this is a weekly homework assignment (my classes meet once a week), and that they should come to every class with one new word, emphasizing that it does not have to be an unusual word--everyday words like arubaito (part-time job, from the German arbeit) often cause the biggest confusion. This introduction takes about 20 minutes.

In Subsequent Classes

Near the beginning of each class I ask the students to teach their partner the correct English spelling of the katakana word they have chosen for their weekly homework. Then, just as in the first class, I select about five students to write their words on the board. All students add the five words to their Katakana List, and we practice the pronunciation of each. This activity will take from 5-15 minutes each time you do it, depending on the size of your class and how many words you choose to include each time.
Evaluating Pronunciation

Assessment of learning can take place several ways. One technique that I use regularly is to have a pronunciation quiz after we have collected about twenty words on our list. I set up tape recorder and a word list in a far corner of the room or in the hall. During the course of the class, students remove themselves from our activities one at a time to record their name, student number, and pronunciation of the words I have selected from our list; having them say each word tow or three times makes it easier to monitor their pronunciation. I can then listen to the tape later and make note of who is experiencing what kind of pronunciation difficulty, as well as note words that should be reviewed by the whole class.

Sometimes, rather than a word list, I will ask the students to record several sentences or a paragraph that I have written incorporating as many words as possible form our Katakana List. Face-to-face assessment also works well, but is somewhat more time consuming. For example, at the end of the semester I will sometimes have students prepare a paragraph of their own to relate to me; the students give me a copy of their script and I encourage them to speak from memory. I use the script to write my comments about their pronunciation so students get immediate feedback to take away with them.

These kinds of assessment can be incorporated in the grades for the course by determining what value such pronunciation activities have in the overall content of your class, and assigning a percentage to the activities accordingly. For example, in my Oral English courses, I place much more emphasis on in-class participation and on group presentations than on discrete language items; pronunciation of the words from our Katakana List accounts for 10% of the final grade, with a midterm and final quiz worth 5% each. Words are awarded a point for natural-sounding English, but nothing if elements of katakana remain in their pronunciation.


The use of katakana English can limit Japanese speakers' awareness of standard English pronunciation and word meanings. By drawing our students' attention to this area of first language interference in second language acquisition, we can help them achieve more natural sounding English speech as well as increasing their vocabulary.