Recently, a bunch of friends and I were sitting around watching the Tom Hanks movie “Castaway.” One of them asked, “If you were all alone on a deserted island, and you could only bring one thing with you, what would you bring?” I answered, “I’d bring rice.” Once they heard my response, they got funny looks on their faces. I have come to realize that they heard lice instead of rice. Lice are a kind of bugs, which get in your hair. Rice is a kind of grain, which we eat. The difference is critical. This experience is funny. But it was no laughing matter for me.
I often can’t distinguish words that include “R” and “L”. When I am in class, I am sometimes confused about what a professor asks for. I have to pay attention to what a professor says, especially, the words “correct” and “collect”. I always wonder if I should hand in my homework or fix my mistakes when a professor says, “Collect your homework”.
My native language is Japanese. The Japanese language does not need to differentiate the sounds “R” and “L” so it was difficult for me to hear the difference and pronounce these sounds. I think that there are two main reasons why it is hard for me to distinguish them.
The first reason is that the educational system of learning English in junior high and high school in Japan does not regard the study of correct English pronunciation as an important thing. What is significant is to understand English grammar and to memorize vocabulary. Generally speaking, all students have to do is just to memorize hundreds of idioms and phrasal verbs, such as “get up” “stand up” “sit down” and “hand out”. Unfortunately, we don’t learn how to use them in context. It became impossible for me to converse because I didn’t learn these phrases as part of a living language. They were only useful for passing university entrance examinations.
Besides, there was an obstacle that prevents me from learning English in school years. That is: the English teachers who taught me in Japan had never been trained in proper English pronunciation. They made students imitate them, even though they did not know how to say English words correctly themselves. Some teachers, therefore, preferred to teach only English grammar. When students who graduate from high school or college go overseas to study, they realize how much different between what native English speakers tell them and what they have learned in Japan. When I came to the U.S. to learn English, I had to throw out the way I used to study English in Japan.
After I started to take an English as a second language class, I was surprised that American people including teachers did not understand what I said even though I used nearly perfect grammar. I have heard that the grammar was the most important thing. What is wrong? I tried to figure out why they did not understand me. While I was looking for the answer, I was gradually coming to recognize why I could not speak. It was a turning point for improving my English skills. But I had to spend a lot of time changing my learning process. I had persisted in learning English through a dictionary. I had neglected sounds as part of a living language.
The second reason why I cannot distinguish between these two sounds is that Japanese borrows many words from foreign languages. Because Japanese has only five vowels and because we need to attach a vowels to every consonant, the sounds of these words have to be adjusted when they are absorbed into the Japanese language.
For a long time, I have been familiar with pronouncing words from foreign languages, which were adjusted for the sounds that Japanese people easily spoke, so it is very difficult to pronounce the words in English. The muscles in my mouth and tongue are accustomed to pronouncing them in their Japanese pronunciation. For example, since computers have become prevalent in Japan, the word “download” is commonly used. However, the word must be transliterated that is written in Japanese script as “daun Ro-do” following the Japanese pronunciation. The last half of “daun ro-do” is pronounced the same as “lord”, “load”, and “road”. In English these three words are different meanings and pronunciation; however, they have the same pronunciation in Japanese. If I transliterate “Lord of the Rings,” the movie’s title is called “Ro-do of Za rin-gu-su.” Moreover, if I say, “road map” in Japanese, I am going to say “ro-do map.”
These two things hamper my progresses of English pronunciation. The ways we learned English in school and the ways Japanese transliterates words taken from foreign languages have sunk into my mind. Someday, if I have a chance to watch the movie, “Castaway,” with my friends again, and they ask me what I would bring, this time, my answer will be “I am going to bring rice.”