The good and the bad about using katakana subtitles in AGO Card Game:
I thought long and hard before deciding to release an extra edition of AGO with kana
subtitles (lightly shadowed under the English text). No doubt some English language teachers and academics
are steadfastly opposed to the idea, full stop. However, after seeing how well AGO with
subtitles works with elementary aged children in their first year of English who would otherwise be
unable to play (due to lack of reading fluency), I concluded that the matter is not so cut and
So, why not give teachers the option, and let them decide for themselves? I
Here are a few aspects that I consider
to be important in the debate:
Generally speaking, the more your lesson immerses students into the English speaking world
(i.e. free from Japanese distractions), the better. Also, the Japanese writing system is also far from ideally
suited for reproducing English sounds, so transcribing English words into Japanese written characters (kana)
often results in distortion. Thus, if kids are using katakana as a basis for forming English sounds,
they can learn bad habits. These are some of the main reasons that kana are not often used to supplement
kid’s English lessons (particularly those taught by native speakers).
That said, there are a few
undeniable advantages to using a little kana in the classroom (in controlled environments) -
the most obvious being that it removes the reading requirement from the equation, opening up a lot of extra
options in the classroom. It often takes kids a year or two of lessons before they are able to read sentences
with any fluency, and this barrier really slows things down and raises the initial difficulty level. Of
course, once kids can read English, this problem is permanently solved, and it can't be stressed
enough that AGO Aqua Kana (if used at all), should be used temporarily and sparingly,
with the right structures in place to ensure a smooth transition to AGO Aqua within three to six months.
I.e. your lesson should be balanced, with at solid phonics curriculum running
Speakers use a foreign 'kana' themselves when first learning
99% of native
English speakers begin learning Japanese by reading and writing Japanese words in romaji. The reason for doing
so is obvious - it's useful to be able to read and write words in the language you're learning. Obviously,
forcing students to jump straight into reading words in hiragana would make things too difficult at
the start, so it's put aside / taught in parallel to hiragana at the beginning. Pronunciation problems
aside, katakana serves the same purpose for EFL students as romaji does for students of Japanese - it is
a writing system that the student is already fluent in, and this skill can assist with learning
the new language.
A few other things to consider:
1: The English education system in Japan is not currently
working well, nor are test scores improving. Sure, this is a complex issue, but why not be pragmatic, and try
thinking outside the box?
2: Like using trainer wheels, playing AGO with kana lowers
the skill requirements. As with learning to ride a bike, when learning a language, there are many things
to assimilate at the start, which can be daunting (though not so painful). With kana subtitles, players
can concentrate on playing the game, and learning how to ask and answer the questions on the cards. They can
practice reading later in the lesson, and of course the time soon comes when the trainer wheels need to be
removed, or they will slow you down.
3: Playing AGO kana doesn’t mean placing any less importance
on learning to read. It just means putting that skill aside for a moment within the lesson. The goal is to
reduce a child’s reliance on the kana as quickly as possible, and there are a number of techniques a teacher
can use to assist with this while using the AGO kana deck. Check this article for more info.
4: A common concern with adding a little katakana to the
classroom is the negative effects it has on English pronunciation. But when dealing with children who get one
hour of English exposure a week, is this really the biggest concern? For starters, the English
language has a multitude of accents, including Japanese English, and it's inevitable that Japanese kids are
going to have Japanese accents - unless they are fortunate enough to spend several years overseas, or go to
an international school. Sure, pronunciation is important, and it should be worked on, but
considering that kids are bombarded with katakana pronunciation 24/7 anyway, do we have to be so precious
that allowing children a 10 minute respite within a lesson, where they are able to use their Japanese reading
skills to great effect is really such a bad thing?
5: The alternative (limiting class activities to those that require minimal reading
ability, in the beginning) has downsides as well. i.e. many lesson options are unavailable due to
reading limitations, and this slows progress. The point of AGO Aqua Kana, really is that it makes
a few really useful pieces of the puzzle available right from the start, so that children can start aiming
for this higher plateau of understanding right from the start.