Katakana transcriptions

Japanese like to transcribe imported vocabulary using their Katakana syllabary, which comfortably maps all strange foreign phonemes to those native to the country’s language. Every country does that, one way or the other. And it makes sense for long term domestication of words, provided speakers of the original language are no longer expected to understand the meaning, which is given in most cases.
I was however shocked today when I saw Katakana transcriptions in a recently released English language self-teaching book, the editor a Japanese.
Fact is that Katakana-transcription is a non-injective mapping of phonemes, resulting in many transcriptions that spell the same even when the original words spelled and sounded quite different. Past tense here to indicate that it is a one-way street you can’t travel back safely. Classic example is a Japanese native proud of speaking English but failing to audibly distinguish between “to work” and “to walk”. This is not the persons fault but the teacher’s who suggested Katakana transcriptions are an adequate way to pick up original pronunciation. But it is still being suggested today in manuals that seem well-conceived otherwise.
How do you learn a foreign language the right way when your teacher tells you it is enough to speak it the Japanese way? Now, what’s the “right way” of course is a philosophical questions: How much adaption do you expect from your interlocutor, and how much are you ready to adapt yourself? And national pride may play a role when trying not to assimilate too much. But pride might wanna end when learning efforts go to waste.
Learning a foreign language is embracing a different culture, but half-hearted embracements always leave a funny aftertaste with me.

About klaus

German boy, 34, living in Tokyo since 2006. Brought up in Erlangen, Germany, University in Erlangen and Berlin.
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