Sitting in a Tokyo coffee shop, I heard a boy of six or so look up from the phone he was using and tell his parents “Game Over.” What struck me was that his pronunciation was very good — he joined the two words together naturally and got the American “er” in “over” just right, which Japanese are usually not at all good at.
Usually it would sound like “ge—mu ohba—”. English teaching in Japan in Japanese schools is almost unthinkable without teaching through writing, and to make the pronunciation of new written words “easier” for children, they are taught with an accompanying Japanese gloss in katakana characters. So children learn English, from the beginning, with a Japanese version of its pronunciation. Consider this quote from a Japan Times article:
Ikui Suzuki, a veteran English teacher of 25 years in Yokohama, believes that despite its drawbacks, the cost of eliminating katakana from English teaching would be extremely high and the children would pay the price.
“I don’t think using katakana is a good way to learn real English pronunciation either,” Suzuki says, “but for slow learners who cannot read the alphabet at all, they need to see the katakana letters to participate in the lessons. Without them, these students would not be able to participate at all.”
Takahiro Muroda, also an English teacher in Yokohama, agrees.
“I don’t want to use katakana when I’m teaching but some students can’t read English without it,” he says. “Many Japanese junior high school students hate English because they have to remember words, difficult grammar and get good scores on tests. Katakana Starts at School
Maybe games are one way to plant an openness to the sounds of English before children are subjected to the misguided and unnecessary attempts of mainstream English teaching in Japan to make the language easier for them — attempts which have the actual effect of subliminally inculcating the idea that English is something difficult to master.