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I've been teaching ESL for over 30 years, but for the last three I've had almost exclusively Japanese students (I teach mostly 1-on-1 classes over Skype, to students from High School to Business Executives.) I'm also a professional linguist and somewhat of a hyperglot, but very much still a dilettante when it comes to Japanese. My question is this:

Is there any way using kana to represent the unpalatalized /s/ before /i/ or /ɪ/? When Japanese students read /si/, most of them invariably pronounce /ʃi/ because... well, you know why. I have many workarounds and ways of demonstrating the difference, but I thought it might be a truckload easier if there were a way of demonstrating this unequivocally so that when they saw it, the light would go on immediately.

事前にありがとうございます!

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I've seen /s/ represented as スィ before, though this seems easy to confuse for /si/ as opposed to シ=/ʃi/. –  b-wilson Sep 9 '13 at 7:53
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I think that just how Japanese learners should get acquainted with kana as quickly as possible and think in terms of kana syllables, English students should get used to the alphabet and English sounds as quickly, and the best way to show how "she" and "see" sounds is to demonstrate it and have the students repeat it. –  blutorange Sep 9 '13 at 11:11
    
@b-wilson This might be a typo, but as far as I know スィ is used to represent /si/, not /s/. (This is not a legally standardized pair of kana, though.) –  Pteromys Sep 9 '13 at 14:59
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3 Answers

Not perfect but you could point out that in "see" the S sound is very similar to the S sound in さ [sa] but different from the S sound in しゃ [sha] or し [shi], and that the EE sound is very similar to the Japanese い [i]. That's how I have introduced it to students in the past. They almost certainly would have never noticed that the beginning S sound of し [shi] is different to the other sounds in the "S" row (さ・す・せ・そ [sa][su][se][so]).

Try and show them the comparison of these two sets of Japanese syllables:

(さ・しゃ) (す・しゅ) (そ・しょ)

They should then be able to distinguish the different "types" of S.

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I think @JesseGood`s answer is technically the most correct, but I like this answer for exploring what has always struck me as an strange and arbitrary linguistic quirk. Maybe I don't know enough about the physiology of the human mouth or the psychology of language, but I've never understood why in Japanese the had to be pronounced with an sh sound, but さ,す,せ,そ don't. This answer not only presents a viable way of explaining the difference, but for me makes the explanation so simple that it makes the existence of that much more mysterious to me. –  Dave M G Sep 12 '13 at 7:43
    
That much is clear; palatalization tends to happen in the proximity of high front vowels more than low, back, or rounded vowels. Viz. Italian c'è and ci, or Irish Gaelic "sí" and "sé". My thanks to all who contributed excellent ideas all round. –  C. DeSantis Sep 14 '13 at 3:01
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Is there any way using kana to represent the unpalatalized /s/ before /i/ or /ɪ/?

No, there isn't.

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"she" と "see" の発音が違うということが、日本人にはわからないので、書き分ける方法はありません。
"シ" が "see" ではなく、"she" になるのは、palatalization という現象です。
palatalization は、日本語においては、「イ」を発音するときの口の形に近くなる、ということです。
「シー」「シィ」「スィ」「セィ」の中で、一番 palatalization が起こっていないのは「スィ」だと思います。

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"書き分ける方法はありません", so what is "スィ"? A different sound from /si/? This answer is quite unclear. –  dainichi Sep 10 '13 at 2:22
    
And I thought all you guys would love it. Let's palatalize. –  oldergod Sep 10 '13 at 5:11
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