The Internet TESL Journal

Is Gairaigo English?

James B. Brown
jbbrown [at]
Keiwa College (Niigata, Japan)

Editor's Note: Gairaigo is the Japanese word for "loan-words".

In an earlier study done to determine whether or not Japanese students make active use of their "latent" vocabulary of English words which have been borrowed into Japanese, we determined that words borrowed into Japanese from English were more easily defined than words that had not been borrowed. The first round of experiments involved the playing of recordings of the English words which the students were asked to listen to over their headsets. Then the students were asked to define them by chosing one from among four definitions, in Japanese, that we projected onto a classroom television monitor. Each of the units of the experiment: the repetition of the word, the projection of the definitions, and the students marking their answer sheets took about 15 seconds. There were 100 units, or vocabulary items, in all.

The vocabulary constituents were carefully selected but were presented to the students without any context, i.e. they simply heard the words repeated twice, before they were asked to mark their answer sheets with the letter of the definition that they felt was closest to the correct one for the word that they had just heard.

The results of the early tests were interesting, but we felt that a study that omitted the loop in Japanese, might prove to be even more productive. With that notion in mind, we designed a second round of experiments which we administered to our freshmen English classes at Tohoku Gakuin University, a group which closely paralleled one of the two groups that were the subjects of our earlier series of experiments.

We decided to avoid using Japanese in the experiment itself from the outset, and agreed that the written medium, rather than the spoken, might prove to be more interesting. We felt that the reading skills of the subjects might be more developed than their listening comprehension talents, and since the first round of experiments involved, essentially, listening comprehension, we wanted to see if similar results could be obtained through reading. In addition, we felt that should the outcome prove to be as significant as that of the first series of experiments, the pedagogical implications would be clearer than they were with the earlier study.

We designed our experiment around twenty problems. Each problem consisted of one sentence in English with one word missing, a fill-in-the-blank type of testing procedure. Since the fill-in-the-blank type of question is one with which most of our subjects were familiar, we felt that the experiment might prove to be less threatening than the listening comprehension one, but would still test the variables that we were interested in, namely, whether or not Japanese students of English make unconscious use of their "latent" English vocabulary of borrowed words.

Each sentence with its empty blank to fill in was followed by four vocabulary items, one of which was to be selected for insertion into the empty space in the sentence. Each of the choices was correct, in that any of them, a random selection, for example, would result in a correct English sentence. Only one of the four, however, was a word which had been borrowed into Japanese. No particular effort was made to control the word level of the vocabulary items used, as had been the case with the earlier experiments. Generally, we tried to avoid overly simple words, but kept the contextual environment rather simple in grammatical terms. (See Fig. 1.) As with the first experiments, we did not know, unfortunately, the word level of the borrowed words in Japanese, a potential weakness in the experiments.

4.  The students were very __________ .

  a.  bored
  b.  curious
  c.  alert
  d.  active*

 5.  She was well known because of her __________.

  a.  expertise
  b.  achievement*
  c.  accomplishments
  d.  deeds

7.  In Hong Kong tourists can buy a lot of __________ name brand goods.

  a.  exceptional
  b.  cheap
  c.  foreign
  d.  imitation*

Fig. 1: Sample problems [borrowed word marked with an *]

Unlike the first study in which the students were expected to hear the words, read the definitions in Japanese on the classroom monitors, and mark their answer sheets in about fifteen seconds per item, in this study, no special time limit for finishing the "test" was set. The subjects, 97 freshmen English majors at Tohoku Gakuin University in Sendai, about seventy percent of whom were women, however, were not given unlimited amounts of time to complete the problems. Students who finished quickly began to talk amongst themselves, thus putting some pressure to "get it over with" on those who were still working on the experiment.

Since any choice from among the four would have resulted in a correct English sentence, there was no single "right" answer. We wanted to see if students, perhaps unable to decide between at least two, or from among as many as four alternatives, would "gravitate" towards the words which were also borrowed into Japanese as gairaigo.

In analyzing the results, we decided to follow two paths. Since a random selection of answers would result in a score of 25 percent, any one of the four being correct, we compared the actual results to a random score. The average number of answers, out of the total of twenty, in which the borrowed word was chosen was 9.92 or 49.6 percent of the total.

This result was obviously significant, but we were concerned that since students don't, and presumably didn't, just select answers at random, that these conspicuous results might not stand up against a different form of analysis. Also, in some of the problems, the non-borrowed words were chosen far more than the borrowed word in the same group of four. To further analyze the significance of the results, we made three groups of twenty words each out of the three words with each sentence that were not borrowed into Japanese, and compared the results of the borrowed group to a random selection as well as to those of each of the randomly created groups of non-borrowed words. Since some of the groups contained non-borrowed words which were chosen more often than any of the borrowed words, we thought that this might result in a more useful, and perhaps not so one-sided comparison as had been achieved with a random selection. As might be expected from the overwhelming "gravitation" towards the borrowed words, however, only one of the three artificial groups scored close to what would have been achieved by a purely random selection. See Fig. 2.

Twenty-five of the papers, roughly a quarter of the total, were selected to analyze and the number of answers for each word was totaled. A random selection of the words to insert in the blanks would result in 6.25 selections per word for the group of 25 students shown in the RANDOM column in Fig. 2. 25 students divided by four, the number of possible choices, results in the figure 6.25. As previously mentioned, from the words that had not been borrowed into Japanese, we made three other groups. These are GROUP A, GROUP B, and GROUP C, respectively, in Fig. 2 above. The bar labeled BORROWED GROUP is the group of twenty words which have been borrowed into Japanese. The totals of Group A, Group B, Group C and the Borrowed group add up to the number of subjects, twenty-five.

A statistical analysis of the results shown in Fig. 2 reveal the following results:

Fig. 3

Fig. 3 shows the results of comparison of all five groups shown in Fig. 2 together. The probability (p) of these results happening by chance is no greater than one in ten thousand, a highly significant indication that we can reject the null hypothesis with confidence.

Breaking down the results in pairs of groups, since the RANDOM GROUP scored higher than any of the others except the BORROWED GROUP, a statistical analysis was conducted comparing each of the groups to it.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4 shows a comparison of RANDOM GROUP and GROUP A as shown in Fig. 2. Since a probability factor of .01 is what was selected for demonstration of high significance and .05 as moderate significance, these results show that the difference between these two groups falls in between the two standards, since the p factor is greater than .025 but may not be as high as .05. We can say, therefore, that there is a moderately high level of signifance involved in the difference between RANDOM GROUP and GROUP A.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5 shows a comparison of RANDOM GROUP and GROUP B as shown in Fig. 2. These results indicate that there is no significant difference between the group of non-borrowed words called GROUP B and a random selection of answers.

Fig. 6

Fig. 6 shows a comparison of RANDOM GROUP and GROUP C. Clearly a random selection of answers is significantly better than the selection of the non-borrowed words represented by GROUP C.

Fig. 7

Fig. 7 shows a comparison of RANDOM GROUP which "outperformed" all the other groups, usually significantly, with BORROWED GROUP shown in Fig. 2. The probability of these results happening by chance are no greater than five in one thousand, a highly significant result, considering that a p factor of one in a hundred is the standard set for "high significance."

In addition, suspecting that men and women might score differently on the problems, independent analyses on the scores of two groups divided only by sex was made. As interesting as it would have been had there been some divergence in the scores, the two groups scored almost identically. There was no significant difference between men and women.

The implications of the second experiment proved to be even more dramatic than those of the first. In a fill-in-the-blank exercise, the students quite clearly felt more comfortable with the use of the words that had been borrowed into Japanese than with words which had not. This suggests that reading texts, built up around the many words that have been borrowed from English into Japanese, might prove to be effective tools in the development of English vocabulary among Japanese university students. The results also suggest that the Japanese teacher of English might be positioned to best take advantage of the "borrowed word recognition phenomenon" which was unequivocably demonstrated in our two series of experiments. The Japanese English teacher is generally more aware of these borrowed words and is often better able to focus on them in the classroom, knowing which are similar in meaning to their English antecedents and which have diverted widely from their original English meanings. The borrowings from English into Japanese have been extensive and continue at a rapid pace. These words clearly constitute a "latent" English vocabulary base. It remains to the classroom materials developers to take full advantage of it, but for the student, a borrowed word approach to vocabulary development might prove to be a rapid way to increase word power.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2, December 1995