‘Koronavairusu’ or ‘Koronauirusu?’ Japan Learns English

Excessive focus on “proper” pronunciation skews English learning

By: Xiaochen Su

With much of Japan gripped with the fear of contracting the Covid-19 virus, which has stricken at least 639 and killed 16, the crisis has triggered an odd only-in-Japan controversy, pertaining to the word “virus.” 

To a non-Japanese unfamiliar with the language, the difference between two transliterations of a foreign loanword may seem trivial. But the concern for how “virus” is pronounced is the latest example in a long list of foreign loan-words that are being deliberately Anglicized. Beer has gone from biru to bia, pizza from piza to pittsa, violin from baiorin to vaiorin…within the limits of Japanese syllabary, foreign words have become ever closer to the original English pronunciation.

While for decades the standard pronunciation of the term virus has been uirusu, owing to the loan-word originally coming from German, those in the Englishteachingcommunity have seized upon the chance to remind people that it ought to be pronounced vairusu instead. As Japan seeks to prevent further dispersions of the coronavirus, the public may come away from the epidemic with a brand-new understanding of the term, taking up koronavairusu instead of koronauirusu.

Accompanying the shifting of individual words’ pronunciation has been a growing interest in English teaching with an overwhelming emphasis on “proper” “native” pronunciation. A growingnumber oftextbooks that teach the Japanese general public how to pronounce English like a native speaker has been published in light of growing demand, as has the number ofEnglishschools that portray the importance of pronunciation as the most important factor in increasing English proficiency. 

Yet the growing enthusiasm about pronouncing English better has not made the Japanese general public more inclined toward mingling with a greater number of non-Japanese. A February 2020 article in The Economist noted that the proportion of Japanese citizens with valid passports has declined to 24 percent today from 27 percent in 2005, with two-thirds of the general public and 53 percent of students expressing no desire to go abroad. The declining trend begs the question of why the enthusiasm for speaking English like an Englishman or an American has not led to more Japanese having the desire to visit England or America.

The clue that explains the existence of the paradox of increasing interest in English pronunciation and the decreased desire to use it can also be found in the same Economist article, which notes that the Japanese have “a crippling fear of the embarrassment of not being understood,” anecdotally citing a fear of the unknown as a major reason for the Japanese’s unwillingness to explore the outside world. 

As I have noted elsewhere, a lack of economic ambition reduces the need for many middle-class youths to go outside their homes, much less foreign countries that the media has systematically portrayed as dangerous. Combined with what the Economist calls a belief that foreign experience and education are unnecessary to secure a good job at home, the Japanese general public sees little benefits from potentially life-threatening and expensive adventures outside the country’s borders.

Such fear is certainly intensified with the increasing emphasis on English pronunciation. Specifically, a greater emphasis on how English words are to be “properly” pronounced only served to indicate to the average Japanese just how little of what they say in a Japanese accent can be understood to a non-Japanese person. 

The enthusiasm for better pronunciation as such has only helped many to realize that the English education they received at school that concentrates on reading and writing does not prepare them for proficient verbal communication with foreigners in English. And that realization that “improper” pronunciation hampers verbal communication in English has only exacerbated existing anxieties about facing up to non-Japanese locales and cultures in a way that goes far beyond just the English language. 

Thought this way, the growing Japanese interest in aligning the pronunciation of its English loanwords with those of native English speakers may contradictorily contribute to further declines in the general public’s interest in the English language and the outside world in general. By portraying the English language as an academic subject whose usage needs to be perfected in a way that greatly deviates from how the vast majority of the country speaks in daily life, the teachers of “proper” English pronunciation risks entrenching the already present Japanese inferiority complex when it comes to English proficiency, driving away the majority from interacting in English, at the expense of catering to a relatively few zealous learners of the language. 

While pronunciation is important for being understood when speaking to others in a foreign language, the current enthusiasm for “proper” English pronunciation should be qualified by realistic projections of what the average English learner in Japan can and cannot do. More than 70 percent of Japanese adults in 2013 and 2016 surveys state that they are incapable of carrying on a conversation in English. Indeed, academicstudiesshow that age affects the very ability to lose accents when speaking a foreign language, with many incapable of picking up native pronunciation after puberty. 

Both suggest that the emphasis on “proper” pronunciation by Japanese learners of English is misplaced as many are not at a stage of proficiency where they can worry about pronunciation, especially since they are at an age when pronunciation cannot be changed even after extensive instructions.

As such, it would be more effective if the government encourages more widespread learning of English at a basic comprehension level while deemphasizing the importance of speaking with “proper” pronunciation. Given that spoken English, if not understood, can still be communicated when written down, proper pronunciation does not serve as a significant value-added for the majority of learners. Instead, the emphasis should be on popularizing a list of basic terms that are most necessary for daily interactions with the non-Japanese, so the vast majority can at least recognize the meaning and spelling of the terms quickly. The popularization of a basic set of English vocabulary ensures that the Japanese can communicate with the non-Japanese they meet in Japan, without even “embarrassing” themselves with the travesty of “improper” pronunciations.

Xiaochen Su is a doctoral candidate at the ITASIA Program, department of Interdisciplinary Information Studies, University of Tokyo