The Internet TESL Journal

English Loanwords in Japanese -- The Built-In Lexicon

Frank E. Daulton
daulton [at]
Niigata Women's College, (Niigata, Japan)

A few years back, Simon-Maeda (1995) and Sheperd in (a title that says it all) "Loanwords -- A Pitfall for All Students" (1996) pointed out dangers of English loanwords in the Japanese language for Japanese learners of English. Simon-Maeda and Sheperd both warned that English loanwords pose a major problem for native Japanese speakers studying English.

My research, in "Japanese Loanword Cognates and the Acquisition of English Vocabulary" (Daulton, 1998), showed that English loanwords in Japanese greatly enhance the acquisition of the English basewords on which they originate. That is, native knowledge of Japanese gives learners a "built in lexicon" of many of the high-frequency words in English.

Anyone who has heard "Retsu ingurishu!" (Let's English) knows that loanwords are different from their baseword counterparts. The many transformations that English words undergo when adapted into Japanese include: rephonalization, shortening, speech part modification, and semantic modification. But leaving the detailed explanation of these changes to Sheperd and other scholars, I will show that despite these differences, loanwords are an asset to learners.

First I will review the research on the influence of Japanese loanwords on English vocabulary acquisition. Later my own classroom research data will confirm that the recall and recognition of lexical items with loanword cognates (i.e., basewords) is considerably better than for those without (i.e., non-basewords). Finally, an estimate of the number of loanwords that correspond to a corpus of 1,942 high-frequency English vocabulary items will open possibilities for new teaching approaches.

Japanese Loanword Influence on English Vocabulary Acquisition

Although even a TESOL specialist would be hard pressed to explain the precise mechanisms of language transfer, few would disagree that L2 vocabulary learning is influenced by L1 vocabulary. The essential question here is whether this influence is negative, as asserted by Simon-Maeda (1995) and Sheperd (1996), or positive.

Nation states that when an L2 word resembles a word in the learners' L1, that it will have a lighter "learning burden" (1990, p. 35). Likewise, the growing research that focuses specifically on the affect of L1 Japanese knowledge effecting L2 English vocabulary acquisition has shown a generally positive effect (Yoshida, 1978; Brown & Williams, 1985; Kimura, 1989; Daulton, 1998).

The Effect of Japanese Loanwords on a Child's ESL Vocabulary Acquisition

Yoshida found that English loanwords helped a Japanese-speaking child living in the United States, Mikihide, acquire the related English basewords quickly (1978, p. 100). Yoshida found that loanwords in Japanese helped Mikihide learn English words more quickly at his nursery school because of their similarity as cognates (p. 99). The cognates were particularly helpful in enlarging Mikihide's receptive vocabulary and for comprehending new English vocabulary items. Presented with 22 English basewords in a Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT), Mikihide comprehended 19 words such as table (teeburu) and orange (orenji).

Regrettably, in production of these basewords, Mikihide's pronunciation was not always recognized by English speakers (p. 100). For example, in Mikihide's interlanguage "table" was changed to English /teybl/ from the Japanese teeburu, but orange remained as orenji.

The Effect of Loanwords on College-Level ESL and EFL Vocabulary Acquisition

While Yoshida's study dealt with a young child in an ESL environment, Brown and Williams (1985), Kimura (1989), and Daulton (1998) studied various college-level, Japanese learners of English.

Brown and Williams found that EFL students, on hearing an English word, understand the word better if it is a loanword cognate (p. 144). Remarkably students did even better when not told that the correct responses would be basewords; students scored 5% better for basewords over non-basewords when not told and 3% better when told (p. 140). Brown and Williams state, "Students may do better when they make the English association on their own" (p. 141)

Kimura studied EFL and ESL groups. He found that both ESL and EFL groups had significantly better scores for English basewords than for non-basewords (p. 77). Both groups scored about 5% better for basewords over non-basewords, as in the study by Brown and Williams. Kimura states that because basewords are the most accessible, they can be an effective tool for learners to learn related vocabulary (p. 17).

Kimura further determined that English loanwords might even assist acquisition of the correct range of meanings of English words (p. 49).* Kimura proposed that loanword knowledge can encourage learners to add more meanings to the loanword meanings they already know, although they may lack confidence in using the loanword lexicon as a resource (1989, p. 80).

Using a blank-filling test that employed both recognition as well as recall skills, Daulton confirmed that students remembered basewords better than non-basewords (p. 19). Considering both the measures of remembering a word's pronunciation (i.e. correct but misspelled), "Type 1," and remembering the correct spelling of a word, "Type 2," the student's performance was better with basewords over non-basewords at every difficulty level. Below is a summary of the results (p. 21):

Subject of Comparison
Type 1 difference Type 2 difference
Junior High School 92% vs. 90% 2% 92% vs. 83% 10%** 
High School 59% vs. 14% 421% 44% vs. 10% 440% 
University 30% vs. 3% 1000% 26% vs. 2% 1300%

As can be seen, while the difference was relatively small for junior high school-level vocabulary, it was considerable when looking at the high school and university levels.

Given the superior performance and apparent learnability of basewords in this and other research, an astute teacher may wonder how many of the 2,000 high frequency words of English have conveniently made the voyage to the Japanese archipelago.

Loanword Cognates for High-Frequency English Words

Many English loanwords in Japanese came from high-frequency English basewords. Thus, given that Japanese loanword knowledge can be an effective tool for English learners, a powerful arsenal of loanword cognates to high-frequency English vocabulary is at hand (Daulton, pp. 21-22).

Nation states that with a vocabulary of just around 2,000, high-frequency headwords, a learner can read and understand about 87 percent of the words of any given text (1990, p. 14). (Remember that headwords like "absorb" are associated with a group of words like "absorption" and "absorbent.") Regarding high-frequency words, he writes, "Any time spent learning them will be well repaid because they cover a lot of text and will be met often" (p. 14). Among the high-frequency word lists available, Nation feels that West's General Service List (GSL) of English Words (West, 1953), which contains 1942 high frequency headwords, has yet to be replaced as the most useful collection of vocabulary .

Remarkably, it was found that 734 of the headword groups in the GSL correlated to at least one loanword, at a rate of 38% (Daulton, p.22).

Of course, as Simon-Maeda (1995) and Sheperd (1996) would point out, because of those transformations that basewords undergo (e.g., semantic modification, rephonalization, etc.), the level of resemblance of those high-frequency basewords to their loanwords cousins is questioned.

Nevertheless, Daulton found that radical semantic shifting is the exception and not the rule (1998, p. 22). For instance, 23 out of 24 of the "a" loanwords as listed in A Dictionary of Loanwords Usage (Motwani, 1991) matched to within the third listed, native meaning in the Random House Webster's Dictionary (Braham, 1996). Furthermore, as many as 18 of the 24 "a" loanwords had the same definition as the first listed in this English dictionary. This confirmed the research that claims that the primary meaning of a word is more transferable to another language (Kimura, 1989, p. 48).

Implications for Vocabulary Instruction in Japan

Kimura asserts that although none of the recent learning strategies for acquiring English vocabulary appear to speed acquisition significantly, the fact that English basewords that are similar to Japanese loanwords can be acquired more easily opens new possibilities for enhanced vocabulary acquisition (1989, p. 2). Nation concurs that, because of their light learning burden, basewords can be learned very quickly by especially beginners (1990, p. 40).

As 734 high-frequency English headword groups correlate to loanword cognates, the loanword lexicon can be tapped to allow learners to gain a large number of highly useful lexical items, particularly nouns, in a short period of time, saving harder ones for later (Daulton, p. 22).

For more advanced English learners, the same approach could be taken to tackle, for example, the additional 800 "university-level" high-frequency words described by Nation (1990, p. 24). ***

Students should be made aware of the loanword resource that they possess. That is, they should learn to have more confidence in their intuitions about new English vocabulary. Kimura proposes that the loanword lexicon may even be used to develop a native-like semantic intuition (1989, pp. 79, 89). To this end, Kimura advises that teachers and learners pay special attention to loanwords in formal instruction. Nation notes, "The more the teacher or the course designer draws attention to the similarities and patterns (between L1 and L2 vocabulary), the greater the opportunity for transfer" (1990, p. 49).

Brown and Williams warn, however, that while awareness of the loanword resource is helpful, explicitly associating particular English vocabulary to Japanese loanwords may diminish any potential benefits (1985, p. 133).

Therefore, at the junior high school level, for example , where curricula and vocabulary to be taught are predetermined and basewords and non-basewords appear together in texts, teachers can assume that basewords are understood and focus all their vocabulary instruction attention on non-basewords (Daulton, p. 22). The basewords, which are the most familiar English words (Kimura, 1989, p. 17), will provide contextual clues to the non-basewords that neighbour them.

Then the points at which loanwords and basewords differ significantly enough to cause confusion can become focal points for learning (Nation, 1990, p. 35).

In particular, the pronunciation differences between basewords and loanwords can be a stumbling bl ock. Yoshida warns that word stress is important if the learner is to be understood by native speakers (1978, p. 99). Thus pronunciation instruction should accompany vocabulary instruction (see Daulton, 1997.)

Best utilizing Japanese loanword cognates naturally requires some knowledge of Japanese. Thus researchers like Topping (1962) urge teachers to become familiar with loanwords in their students' native language (p. 287).


*This contradicts Lado's assertion that loanword knowledge limits the range of English meanings known to learners (1972, p. 285).

**When contrasting the performance of basewords and non-basewords, the low differences for junior high-level vocabulary of 2% and 10 % resemble the 5% and 3% found by Brown and Williams (1985, p. 140) and the 5% found by Kimura (1989, p. 47). This may be due the similarity of their test item selection at this level (Daulton, p. 21).

***Daulton (1998, p. 22) estimated that there should be valuable matches for about a quarter of the 800 university-level, high-frequency headword groups.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. V, No. 1, January 1999