Katakana, Part 3: The good, the bad, and the … come on, we can do better than this.

In this post, there’s a lot more of my experiences and opinions of katakana. I’ll warn you now, the ‘good’ section is pretty small.

The good:

1. It allows the Japanese language to take foreign concepts/things and integrate them into Japanese. In my opinion, this is pretty efficient use of language in cases like ‘pan’ (bread) for which I assume there would have been no word before the thing itself was introduced. Same goes for ‘ko-hi-’ (coffee), although there is actually kanji for that one too, so it’s a special case. However, it’s also become really popular to use katakana English (or other foreign) words for which there is already a Japanese expression. That seems less efficient, to me, kind of like English.

2. The useful part of there being a katakana version of lots of things that do actually have Japanese names is that if I don’t know the word for something, I can just put the English into katakana, and a good half the time, the other party understands. Awesome.  Of course, there is the risk that you try to say ‘reverse’ and you say ‘vomit’ by accident.

If you can think of any other positives about katakana, please let me know, because my list ends here.

The bad:

While I believe katakana and its usage have many flaws, I think my biggest problem with it is that it makes other languages more confusing for Japanese people, and counterintuitively, despite what many students may think, puts more distance between Japanese and other languages.

One instance of this happening was with an outspoken grade 5 kid in one of my schools. As part of an activity – I think he was the volunteer to help demonstrate the activity – I asked him, ‘What animal do you like?’

‘Animal?’ he repeated and looked at his classmates.

アニマル (animaru)’ they clarified.

‘Oh! アニマル (animaru)! アイライクドッグ (Ai raiku …doggu).’

It seems like this kid to put it into katakana, i.e. Japanese, before he can process it, and he is not alone in this. If the sounds stray too far to be able to quickly change them into katakana in his head, it’s not going to happen. This means it’s really hard for this kid and people like him to understand anyone speaking English of a non-Japanese variety, let alone how embarrassing it can be to try to actually make these weird foreign sounds in front of your peers. (Year 7 French, anyone?)

When Japanese people use English in mainstream (Japanese) media, it’s usually katakana. I wouldn’t care about this, except that I see the result of it in school. IMG_0561It becomes ‘gaijin’ and ‘English’ stereotypes that don’t make sense, e.g. catchphrases like ‘Gets!’ and ‘Come come! Say say!’ which my kids like to spout at random times. Kind of like ‘Domo arigato, Mr Roboto,’ I guess. If you said it to a Japanese kid and expected them to know the song or be pleased or have some desired reaction.

When kids don’t understand something and a foreigner is around, some of them make a big shrugging gesture and say, ウォッツ?uottsu’ (katakana for “What?’). Some grade 6 (11-12-year-old) kids of mine heard the phrase ‘What’s this?’ and wrote it down as ‘what this’. On one level I was impressed that they had written at all, and that they hadn’t written it in katakana, but I was also dismayed that that’s what they thought they were hearing.

Sound and word endings

For those of you who aren’t so familiar with katakana and its limits, any word that ends in a ’t’ sound in a foreign language can have the ending ta, chi, tsu, te or to in katakana. So for English ‘what,’ you could have uotta, uocchi, uottsu, uotte or uotto. I think uotto used to be more popular, but for some reason (possibly related to something on TV or the internet, just a guess) uottsu is the one all the kids are saying these days. ‘Nut’ and sport are a couple more problematic examples. Do you want a donuts? How about a nuts? What is your favourite sports?

By the way, this also goes for words that end in a D sound:  (da) ヂ (ji) ヅ (zu) デ (de) ド(do) …’word’ becomes ワード wa-do.

Katakana endings cause trouble for any native Japanese speaker who decides they want to improve their pronunciation of English, because sooner or later they realise that there is no O sound in words like ’cut’ and ‘cat.’ This means that when as kids they learned katto and kyatto, that was a mistake. So they decide they should take off all the Os that come after Ts – or Ds, for that matter – when speaking English. This is kind of like doing a ‘find and replace’ in Word. It works, but not for words that really do end in T and O. So people tell us they like ‘rizot’ but not ‘tomat’. And they have a friend who visited Tront (Toronto). There is a restaurant whose name is ガスト gasuto, which I always took for the English word ‘gusto’ – yes, from Italian. But there are maps that call it ‘Gust’ which, true, is also an English word. And hey, who am I to say which makes more sense?

This can be kind of annoying. From my perspective as someone learning Japanese, katakana transliterations seem kind of random a lot of the time. Who decided that キャベツ kyabetsu was closer to ‘cabbage’ than キャベジ kyabeji? And that ドイツ doitsu was more sensible for ‘Deutsch’ than ドイチュ doich? Why パイオニア paionia for ‘pioneer’ but ビール bi-ru for ‘beer?’ ゼリー zeri- for ‘jelly’ when there could easily be ジェリー jeri- ? And why is ‘fruit’ フルーツ furu-tsu and ‘flute’ フルート furu-to? It adds an extra challenge, too, when you just have to know stuff like バター bata- is ‘butter’ but  バッター batta- is ‘batter’ (only the baseball kind, you can’t use it to cover fish for frying or to make pancakes). This sort of inconsistency is probably the smallest problem with katakana, because it’s just a complication for learners like me, and lots of languages have the odd exception, English famously being no exception to that rule.

The ugly:

Katakana probably does the most damage when people think it’s English. It’s Japanese. When you speak katakana, you are speaking Japanese. As mentioned in the false friends discussion, if you go ‘Hey! I know that word, great, one less thing I have to learn!’ you are going to run into problems.

This kid was trying to be encouraging. He/she didn't know that Japanese ファイト (faito, 'try hard, do your best') and English 'fight' are not the same in all contexts.

This kid was trying to be encouraging. He/she didn’t know that Japanese ファイト (faito, ‘try hard, do your best’) and English ‘fight’ are not the same in all contexts.

Exhibit A.

‘Are you OK?’


– ‘OK, very very OK!’ (—> Yes, I’m great.)

‘Are you ready?’

– ‘OK.’ (—> Yes, I am.)

‘Do you like tennis?’

– ‘OK.’ (esp. with thumbs up or some other positive indication—> Yes, I do.)

This is not OK. These are yes or no questions. In English, OK is not ‘yes’. It’s not ‘good.’ It’s ‘all right.’ The meaning and usage have some overlap, but it’s different. 

Found in a shop in Harajuku, Tokyo. The Japanese reads, 'Please do not sit here.'

Found in a shop in Harajuku, Tokyo. The Japanese reads, ‘Please do not sit here.’

If people learned that ‘sit’ cannot be equated to シット (shitto), my adult class that time wouldn’t have sung ‘Kookaburra shits in the old gum tree’ and some private hilarity would have been lost, but it would have been worth it. If katakana English were not so pervasive in the culture and in language learning that many of the English teachers here use it because they don’t know anything else, learners would have less of a disadvantage.

Meanwhile, the more English words are imported into katakana, the more confusing it makes trying to speak English for someone who’s learning it as a foreign language. I had someone try to tell me yesterday – her pronunciation was good – that a cat cafe wasn’t good value because … ‘cost performance’. I was able to vaguely get what she meant, but I didn’t know the expression. I’ve never studied economics, but today I found ‘cost performance ratio’ on Wikipedia, and sure enough, it’s used to talk about efficiency or value. She was using an expression she knew from katakana that had been imported from English (economics/management-speak?), but she couldn’t use it in a sentence in a way that made sense. This is an advanced student, by the way, but still a student. I’m just glad I haven’t heard anyone use ‘heartful’ yet (no, not a word in English) when speaking English, because in katakana, ‘heart’ and ‘hurt’ sound the same.

To sum up so far: Katakana may be a useful tool in some contexts, but in a lot of cross-linguistic communication and language study, it seems like a case of the solution causing the problem.

What language is this?

I think it’s important to make distinctions between languages. This may sound ridiculous: who doesn’t make distinctions between languages? But somehow, it seems the line between Japanese and English is pretty blurred for a lot of Japanese people.

Katakana does a couple of things to contribute to this.

1. Often, when someone hears or sees something in English that they recognise from katakana, they think, Oh! I know this, and then they assume that the katakana and the English word are the same. This results in both false friends and their associated misunderstandings, and also pronunciations like yu-niba-saru sutajio for Universal Studios. The Japanese katakana and the English may be mutually intelligible in some contexts, but it is not the same. One teacher I worked with taught her kids ‘pencace’ instead of ‘pencil case’ and parka instead of ‘hoodie. Guess where she got those ideas? 

2. There are so many English words that have entered Japanese in katakana, and so many English-Japanese kids’ dictionaries have a katakana pronunciation for every entry; (whee! look! I used a semicolon!) and as I mentioned in Part 2 of this katakana series, words in katakana are seen within Japanese as still being foreign on some level because they are written in this ‘foreign’ script. So for some people, I think they think don’t realise that when they speak in katakana, while they may be doing some sort of code-switching in their head from a ‘Japanese’ word to a ‘foreign’ word, they are still speaking Japanese.

Katakana is one of the reasons that English spelling is such a challenge for so many Japanese students of English. Remember, they learn Japanese with all its sounds and they learn to read and write hiragana, katakana and some kanji before they learn to use the alphabet. They think in Japanese sounds, so the Roman/English alphabet doesn’t make much sense to them. I’m sure you’ve noticed how English spelling doesn’t make sense. Maybe you’ve even seen this video about it. It’s hard to imagine what this would be like for someone who doesn’t use the alphabet in their native language. I can only guess that it would be like trying to learn Arabic, Russian or Thai speaking and writing, and discovering that the sounds that go with the visual representation can change for no apparent reason. (I have never tried to learn any of these languages, so I don’t know if that actually happens or not.)


Nihongo wa muzukashii.

If you remember anything of what’s just above, what are you going to remember? The part you can read, right?

When language students find something familiar in the sea of apparently nonsensical stuff that is English, of course they want to grab onto it. And when you want to take a note of how a word sounds, you want to be able to do it quickly and in a way that you will understand, right? For me to remember a French word, I want to know the spelling. Well, Japanese students use katakana. But when they see it again, chances are they’re going to read the katakana and not the English or whatever language it’s supposed to be. And which one are they going to remember? Katakana, every time.

So students remember katakana, their trusty(??) pronunciation guide, and they don’t remember English words with their crazy spelling.  How should they know if it’s an L or R? How should they know if it’s shirt or shirts, fruit, fluts or fruits? It all sounds the same to them. And for the record, yes, I did once have to decipher ‘fluts.’ They were honestly trying to write ‘fruit.’

As always, thanks for reading. Happy new year, although not so new by this point. Happy early Chinese new year! It’s monkey year in 2016. Let me know thoughts, queries, comments, editing oversights, requests for future posts, favourite songs, etc.


3 thoughts on “Katakana, Part 3: The good, the bad, and the … come on, we can do better than this.

  1. It pains me sometimes when some students write katakana over many of the English words in a textbook. For some of them, I’ll give them a bit of a pass if they are really slow learners and would just be completely lost and left behind without it. But for ones who I think should know better, or are just being lazy, it’s hard.

    Regarding katakana words, two jump into my head right away.
    energy – エネルギー (enerugi-) Just sounds completely different. Why not エナジー (enaji-)?

    virus – ウイルス (uirusu) Makes absolutely no sense. If a Japanese person said that to me, and gave me 10 guesses (maybe more) I wouldn’t have come up with virus.It actually happened in real life. My coworker apparently had accidentally given a minor virus to one of the computers. And they kept saying that word in katakana, and we thought they were talking about “wheels” for the longest time until a dictionary was pulled out).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think エネルギー and ウィルス are both from German. I was lucky I had ウィルス explained to me early on in a Japanese lesson, otherwise that would have caused some problems!


  2. Hi Jonathan Frey, please bear in mind that much of the learning English that Japanese people do may be based on American English and American culture, so the R being a stronger force in the katakana may relate to that. So if you consider an American saying “energy” vs an Australian saying “energy” the vowel sounds are completely different.
    But Cath, I don’t think it is a good sign, but wouldn’t the opposite be worse? Even though in posture, “sitting up” may be better! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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