Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Learning Japanese Loanwords: Do They Make You Lazy?

I recently read a review of Giles Murray's 13 Secrets for Learning Fluent Japanese that got me thinking about loanwords and how derided they are by some, so I thought I would revisit this post and get some of your ideas.
This post has been updated in May 2009

Cosplay-Zoku by bass_nroll, on Flickr

My Initial Thoughts on Learning Japanese Loanwords

When I first started learning Japanese, I concentrated heavily on authentic Japanese, hiragana and gaining an understanding of traditional culture. I put to one side katakana and avoided using loanwords in speech, thinking somewhat mistakenly they would get in the way of learning real Japanese.

At the time I first went to Japan in 2003, there was a backlash against the use of English loanwords that went all the way to the Japanese Diet. Then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi became upset at the use of words that he said meant nothing to the Japanese public.

A Brief History of Japanese Loanwords

What I failed to recognise at the time was the use of borrowed words in Japanese has a long and colourful history. If we forget for a moment that kanji was borrowed from Chinese, and with it most of ancient Japanese culture, the use of foreign words began with Portuguese and Dutch traders in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Until very recently English loanwords were not as common as say Dutch or Portuguese, and during the Meiji period French and German words were borrowed and adapted for use with the local language. Uncovering some of these word origins is sometimes like a brief tour of Japanese history and its unfolding interactions with the modern world.

Some Japanese are not aware of the origin of these words, and may often mistake them for legitimate English words, which can make for some amusing conversations. There is no mistaking however that loanwords are an integral part of the Japanese language and may provide an a valuable resource for learners of Japanese as a second language.

Tapping into the Borrowed Lexicon of Gairaigo

All you need to do to tap into this resource is get over the cultural cringe. So let's take a look at some common misconceptions people have about loanwords.
  1. What can be said with a loanword can be said in real Japanese

    This is not always true, as loan words were historically introduced to describe things the Japanese did not have, like cameras (カメラ). The way in which they are used is also different from the English. Take for example the English word moody (ムーディ). Upon hearing this most people would presume the speaker means "prone to mood swings", when in fact the nuance is similar to "romantic".

  2. Real Japanese don't use loanwords

    While you might bemoan the gradual loss of a nations identity through the forces of globalisation, there is no doubting that Japan is becoming ever more westernised. Japanese see the adoption of western customs and ways of speaking as a positive way of engaging with the outside. It's cool to pepper your speech with borrowed English in Japan.

  3. Loanwords distract you from learning real Japanese

    Loanwords are a useful resource for Japanese learners of English, and may actually help Japanese learners of English retain vocabulary. The Japanese use loanwords to learn English, you can also use them to learn Japanese, think of them as fast food for language learners.

  4. Modern pop culture isn't authentic Japanese culture, neither is slang

    It really depends what you define as "authentic". Examples of modern Japanese culture such as cosplay (コスプレ) are no more or no less authentic than samurai drama or kabuki. No matter what aspect of Japanese culture you are interested in there will be a range of loanwords in use.

  5. It's impossible to keep up with new loanwords, so why bother

    Loanwords tend to be very specific to the context in which they are used. If you are working in IT you will need to know a certain number of loanwords that are specific to that industry. If you are interested in manga and anime (アニメ), then a different set of loanwords might be useful. You may not need to know them all, but having a vocabulary that works for your interests is important.
So there you go. There is quite a bit you can learn about Japan from loanwords, and you needn't be shy about using them.

Controversy surrounding the use of loanwords

I can't believe that only now, in May 2009, have I stumbled across this review written in 2001 which slams Giles Murray's advice in his entertaining book of techniques for learning Japanese. The main argument against the use of loanwords is that you limit your own proficiency while causing the Japanese to look down upon you. The critic gets emotive and cites "linguistic discrimination" before calling the author ignorant and warning his readers not to use "these words to a grotesque and unnatural degree".

Sure, you can overdo things, even in English. There is no doubt in my mind however, that loanwords have their place in the Japanese language. It would be short-sighted for anyone serious about learning the language to overlook them.

I'm interested to hear your opinion. What is your attitude towards loanwords? What do Japanese think of gairaigo? New loanwords are coming into use everyday. Do you think they dilute the Japanese language, or enrich it?
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