Peer pressure leads to poor English

Q: Many children at my school who can pronounce words properly start speaking horribly after they enter middle school. How can we encourage them to continue speaking naturally when doing so seems to embarrass them in front of their peers?

R.L., teacher

Fukushima A: I think by "speaking horribly" you are referring to their transition to speaking English with katakana pronunciation. We have noticed this phenomenon at our school, too.

When we teach preschoolers and primary school students on our own premises, they do not question our pronunciation. They willingly duplicate the English they are exposed to and use it for linguistic interchange. Then all of a sudden, when they enter middle school and don their school uniforms, they develop an intrinsic need to blend and fit in.

English class is no exception. Students who have "good" pronunciation do not want to "show off" in front of others. In addition, out of respect for authority, they do not want to cause trouble for the teacher by speaking differently than the teacher does.

I vividly recall my adolescent son telling me his middle school teacher often called on him in class to read English passages. I was appalled when he confessed he read with katakana pronunciation. Yet, he felt this was justifiable because he did not want to intimidate his classmates or make his teacher, who spoke with katakana pronunciation, look bad. It's really a delicate line over which we have little control.

When I was teaching junior high English in New York, some of my African-American girls were great grammarians and always aced their tests. But when they spoke in class, they ignored all the rules, using double negatives consistent with the black dialect that was prevalent with their peers. They didn't want to appear "uppity" in front of their classmates.

I arranged a meeting after school and explained to them there was a time and place for everything. How they spoke to their friends required one sort of language. Yet how they spoke on future job interviews and in social situations required another sort of language. Because they were excellent students, they were fortunate in knowing the difference. They clearly got the point.

I do the same with our middle and high school students. I tell them that perhaps the teacher and their classmates did not have the training and experience they were fortunate enough to have at our school. There is a time and place for everything. At their schools, they are welcome to speak with katakana pronunciation, but at Little America, we speak real English. And they are fortunate to not only know the difference but also be able to make the choice.

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