A rationale and suggestions for including sound symbolic expressive vocabulary in university-level Japanese language classroom instruction



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



The Japanese language is unusually rich in a variety of sound symbolic words. Sound imitation is used to reflect physical, audible noises relating to the actions or movements of people, animals, and things. Such words are also used to express imitation of manner to portray feelings and figurative meanings. These expressions are found in a wide variety of contexts, ranging from classical literature to daily conversation, to manga (the trendy comic books read extensively by virtually every age group in Japan). Sound symbolic vocabulary adds a vividness and flair to the Japanese language, making it colorful, creative, and psychologically expressive. These words have common structural features and syntactic functions that make them readily identifiable (though, perhaps, not at a conscious level for the native speaker) as a lexical group. And yet, despite their undeniable presence in all areas of language use, sound symbolic words have been virtually ignored in Japanese language textbooks and classroom instruction. They continue to represent, to outsiders, at least, one of the most elusive and least understood aspects of the Japanese language. In this dissertation, I frame my discussion of characteristics of sound symbolic vocabulary by first reviewing the literature on Japanese sound symbolic vocabulary and on vocabulary acquisition in L1 and L2. I then discuss the results of interviews with textbook authors and language educators concerning the teaching of sound symbolic words. Although they expressed some divergent views, for the most part they agreed that these words do play an important role and should be introduced to students in manageable increments, at a point when students have acquired enough knowledge to make learning meaningful. Imagery-based pictorial, verbal, and contextual responses to 100 sound symbolic words given by 50 Japanese native speakers are presented. I then provide suggestions for classroom instruction of sound symbolic vocabulary based on a constructivist model using metalinguistic previews and imagery-based elaboration strategies, offering a sample “snapshot” lesson. Ramifications of this dissertation should help students increase their knowledge of and ability to communicate using real-life Japanese, greatly expand their word power, and make significant progress to greater language proficiency.