English is incomprehensible!

Of course I understand English. As I jokingly tell my Japanese friends, “My English is perfect.”

I’ve never really taught English before though. During my 16 years as a faculty member at Nippon Electronics College I occasionally filled in for a technical English lesson, but my courses were all math and scientific simulation. And I lectured in Japanese.

Right now I’m giving an acquaintance weekly English lessons via Skype. Her vocabulary, pronunciation and hearing skills are not strong. We’re starting with basic hearing comprehension and pronunciation – at least to achieve a level where she can say something in English and have it understood by another English speaker. 

Until now I didn’t realize how utterly incomprehensible English pronunciation and spelling really is!

In Japanese, for example, there are basically just 5 vowel sounds: a, i, u, e and o:

a – as in father
i – like the vowel in teen
u – like in lute
e – like in bed
o – sort of like in ode, sometimes a bit closer to awe

But in English there are 20 so-called “vowel phonemes.” And then there are 23 or 24 consonant phonemes. That makes for approximately 480 consonant-vowel sounds, whereas in Japanese there are only 50.

On top of that, there are multiple ways of writing the same sound in English (Google “Dearest creature in creation” for a great poem covering all the varied pronunciations and spellings.)

It’s common knowledge that Japanese people have difficulty distinguishing between L and R. But there are many others like that. For example, the j sound in jump sounds like the zh sound in leisure, and many more.

To make matters worse, Japanese borrows a lot of words from English and writes them in katakana, a Japanese phonetic alphabet, and usually writes them with a pronunciation different from English. For example, the word “on” (on/off) is commonly used in Japanese but instead of writing it with the English pronunciation “ahn” it is written so it is pronounced more like “own” or “awn.” On top of that, all Japanese syllables which end in “n” use the “n” sound in “king” rather than the “n” in, well, “on.” So a word like “on” ends up coming out sounding like own or awn where the last n is pronounced like the n in king and… well it goes on and on. It doesn’t sound anything like “on” to a native English speaker.

For my friend, I’ve been keeping track of words she is having trouble saying correctly, or distinguishing between. One example is:

(1) woke (2) walk (3) work

They all basically sound the same to her. And they are difficult for her to say correctly. (Search YouTube for “japan siri work” to hear the frustrating attempts of a Japanese man trying to tell Siri on his iPhone 4 to email him at work. Siri keeps replying, “I don’t know what you mean by walk.”)

Another one is the difference between (1) year and (2) ear. There really is no “yee” sound in Japanese. She was trying to say “the year before last” and it kept coming out “the ear before last.” 

Thinking about it, I’m amazed that all these sounds are so clearly distinguishable to me. And I wonder, how on earth did I ever learn to speak, hear, read and write English? It must be as difficult as learning kanji is to a non-Japanese. (I can appreciate why it is all but impossible for me to learn Chinese, which has even more sounds than English, plus tones to boot.)

And there are also parts of speech I am at a loss to explain properly. Why, for example, are we meeting again in March, on Friday at 2:00 pm. What’s the proper way to explain why we use in, on and at like that? In Japanese the same preposition is used in all three cases. Is there no way to explain their proper use in English other than to memorize a table of rules like “use on with days of the week, etc.?) To a native English speaker there is just one rule: it should sound right.

Anyway, I’m finding this interesting and challenging. I’m trying to find a way to help her improve her hearing and speaking comprehension. If I were a professionally-trained English teacher I’d probably know of standard, effective exercises to help her along. But I wonder if there really is any good way other than complete immersion in an English speaking environment for at least several months. 

In the more than 28 years I’ve been in Japan I’ve only known a few Japanese people who can speak English very well. And except for one (who immersed himself in English radio and novels – quite amazing) they all spent time living overseas.



English is incomprehensible! — 3 Comments

  1. When one sees it all together by comparison, the hurdles are emphasized on both sides. For a young person, a Japanese or a native English speaker, home stay may be the best approach for conversational fluency in both situations. In reading your comments I note the interchange of hearing and listening. These 2 words are not interchangeable. If a student says his hearing is bad, I advise him to see a doctor who is a specialist in treating ear problems. A listening problem deals with techniques for improving accuracy and understanding skills through reading, writing, listening practice over a broad range of situations. Of course there are many other factors involved. A most important one being to absorb the cultural do’s and don’ts in the use of the adopted language. To me that means on the one hand living like the Japanese do; and for the Japanese student, living like the families live in the cultural environment in which the student is living. When it comes to English, take your pick. The British Empire spread English to several parts of the world. English, like a mushroom, super-imposed itself on the various native languages. Get representatives from each together, we would probably discover the respective brands of English will have taken on local meanings and the local languages have absorbed a variety of modified English words. Would the language buffs care to comment? Archibal

  2. I new, I mean, knew that because I eight, I mean ate, well, And I got water from the well. Oh well. Love,Muttle

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