Sporadic Happiness (in Japan!)

(formerly) updated every Wednesday

#15 The Japanese take on the alphabet…oddly?

on March 13, 2012

Okay, so I’m an English teacher in Japan.

To borrow a meme from the internet:

What my friends and family think I do:

What Japanese people expect me to do:

What my employer thinks I am:

What I often feel like:

What I actually do:

And some of this too:

And I make students do this all the time:

Less because they don’t understand me (I know Japanese and use it often) but more because they don’t remember what they learned before or how to answer a question.

Anyway, on to today’s topic.

In the public schools, kids don’t start reading and writing in English until middle school (grade 7).  In elementary school they do purely speaking and listening activities, with the exception of possibly learning to write their own name (often in all capital letters).

Another ALT in my town thinks this is really bad, and I agree, to a degree.  It’s a huge shock for kids to go from elementary English classes to middle school ones and all of a sudden have to read passages out loud, remember the spelling of words they’ve never seen before, write whole sentences….  It’s a better idea to introduce the letters at an earlier age, and maybe a few basic words and some basic things like how to write your name properly (with both upper and lower case letters).  Then they can begin to focus on the massive amounts of grammar and vocabulary the middle school throws at them without worrying about letters too.

In the current elementary national curriculum, ABCs are introduced in grade 6, but only briefly and for exposure, not in terms of writing.  Starting this spring they’ll be introduced in grade 5, but again, mostly just for sight exposure.  They don’t even teach the proper way to write the letters, much less how to write them at all during this time.

Now, in grade 4, students do learn how to write their ABCs under the guise of “romanization” of their language.  For example, Tokyo.  We can write it in English right?  But in Japanese they write 東京 in Chinese characters.  For kids who haven’t yet learned their Chinese characters, or forgot them, or whatever, you can also write it in hiragana, as とうきょう。 Most kids learn romanization in schools because it is used sometimes in Japan for signs or whatnot.  Sometimes you need to write or read place names or other information in “Roman Letters.”

Now, because Japanese use Chinese characters that have very particular stroke orders and rules about what comes first (such as horizontal vs. vertical lines, etc) it seems like Japanese people looked at the English alphabet and decided to do it their own way.

I was shocked, literally shocked, when I saw a middle school student write their upper case N as | then | then connect the two in the middle with with \  so that it looked like |\|  It was a little more closed than that, but I was like, “that’s totally ridiculous!  Why do 3 disconnected strokes like that?  It should be a single movement!”

While we in the US are taught to write our letters in an efficient way (picking up the pencil as little as possible, so we can write fast) the Japanese are not taught the letters the way we are.  Here is what is taught in Japan instead:

I find letters such as N, M, V, and W completely unreasonable.  What normally takes a single stroke can be as many as 4 completely disjointed strokes!  A is similar.  I start at the bottom left hand-side, go up, then back down, then do the center stroke.  Don’t most people do it that way?

It also tends to bug me that they write Y like that, which technically is acceptable, but it takes 3 strokes whereas writing a lower case y in a large, upper case position is more efficient (and how I write it, since it only takes 2 strokes).

Also take a look at R and K.  They don’t connect to the left hand vertical stroke.  I guess that’s okay, but seems odd to me.

Also J doesn’t have a horizontal line at the top, and I know that’s perfectly acceptable, but I thought that the basic form had that 2nd stroke, while you could also just be lazy about it and leave it off, but ideally it has that horizontal bit.  Same with I.  I personal tend to write capital I with just one stroke, making it look more like a lower case l, but that’s out of laziness.

Now here’s the lower case letters in Japanese form:

These don’t look as unreasonable (except for v and w), but they also don’t trace back over letters like we do in the US.  Like, a d, or an a, or b, is one continual movement.  You don’t just draw one part, pick up the pencil, and draw the other part; it’s all connected.

I learned my letters like this, with the tails and everything.  Of course when you get older you start leaving the tails off, but this is the way I started out writing.

Some people might be like “I don’t write k’s like that!” but I think, honestly, we first learned them like that, and eventually you start doing it in a more block form.

In any case, it’s mind boggling to me that the Japanese learn their letters differently.  Yes I realize it’s just their way of doing it, but it seems terribly slow and laborious and sometimes the letters don’t quite look right if there’s spaces open when writing a letter such as M as |\/| if you’re trying to write it fast.

When we study Japanese, we learn the proper stroke order of the Chinese characters and the syllabic kana characters of hiragana and katakana.

For example, here’s the character for “ability” and there’s only ONE way you can write it, and that’s doing the strokes in this order:

Here are the first 5 letters of the Japanese syllabary (a, i, u, e, o), and we all learn them the exact same way, in this particular stroke order, which is also how Japanese children learn them:

If we don’t write our characters based on the Japanese stroke orders, they can look sloppy at best, or all disjointed and unbalanced at worst, possibly even looking like a different character than we intended.  I think the same is true with letters; sure you can write them in the blocky Japanese way or however you want, but it’s going to look really odd and unnatural on paper, possibly even ending up looking like something other than what it was meant to be.

Also of note, the Japanese pronounce the letter “Z” as “Zed.”  I was really confused by this at first, but later learned that they do it like that in Canada (I think).  Plus it’s Zed in French.  So I guess they took Z from a non-American form of English.

Anyway, I’ve had the opportunity to teach my 6th graders this year how to write the alphabet MY WAY (read: the efficient way) so hopefully they’ll be a little better prepared for their middle school classes than they would have been otherwise.  Still, it’s a huge jump in expectations between 6th and 7th grade.  I wish them luck.

Oh, and if you didn’t know, the Japanese school year ends in March and begins again in April with only a 2 week break in between, so my current 6th graders are soon to be graduating and will enter middle school very soon.

Also, did you know that all elementary schools go until 6th grade?  Some in the US go until 5th grade.  And here in Japan, all middle schools encompass 3 grades, 7, 8, and 9 which they refer to as middle-1, middle-2, and middle-3.  High school is also just 3 grades, of grades 10, 11, and 12 which are referred to as high-1, high-2, and high-3.

Some misunderstandings can happen when English teachers call their students “1st graders” when actually they mean middle-1 or high-1.  If I hear 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grade I can’t help but think of elementary school.  Many of us ALTs would prefer they use the term “year,” as in “the 1st years” but some Japanese teachers don’t pick up on this or are too entrenched in their old ways.  Sigh!

That’s all for today.

(PS this post is a day early.  Enjoy!)


One response to “#15 The Japanese take on the alphabet…oddly?

  1. Ben says:

    I gotta say, I’m also an ALT, and I feel the same way. The whole post could’ve come from my own grumblings.

    I can’t believe the lax their system is for these elementary kids. I just had a class with my Grade 6s and the teacher was (re)introducing the alphabet to them. We use a book called Hi Friends now, which has an activity where they can find words in a picture, then copy them into the space below. As I was walking about the class, I was horrified by the writing I saw. Granted they are children, and I certainly remember how bad my own writing was when I was young (and still is for that matter…) but I still remember the stroke orders we were taught. It’s a pet peeve of mine to see people write an “O” from the bottom…

    I intend to bring this up with all my teachers, and hope they’ll let me teach the kids the proper order, and how not to mix capital and small letters, and how to line everything up along a flat plane, etc, etc

    It’s hard to be convincing when my own Japanese stroke order is still so off though… I’m stubborn, I guess.

    Oh, I am from Canada, so I do say “Zed”. Too my knowledge, only in the US is it pronounced “Zee”.

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