Language Awareness: Use/Misuse of Loan-words in the English Language in Japan

Andrea Simon-Maeda
Ichimura Gakuen Junior College (Inuyama, Japan)
KFA05374 [at]

1. Introduction

The following quiz appeared in the Asahi Evening News (Mon., Jan. 9, 1995):

Exotic English quiz

Try matching the product names in the left-hand column with the goods they represent in the right-hand column. Answers are below:

     1. Clean Life, Please      A. soft drink
     2. I've                    B. chocolate candy
     3. Love-love               C. coffee creamer
     4. Volume Up Water         D. cigarettes
     5. Hope                    E. cleaning gloves
     6. Mouth Jazz              F. electric razor
     7. Pocari Sweat            G. condoms
     8. Creap                   H. mouthwash
     9. Meltykiss               I. hairspray
    10. Super Winky             J. shampoo

  Answers: 1E, 2J 3F, 4I, 5D, 6H, 7A, 8C, 9B, 10G
In the same article it is noted that Japanese employees at the advertising agencies write most of the English slogans because they know what will appeal to the Japanese consumer. A top agency president is quoted as saying that "English words are being used as a creative device rather than for their pure communication value", he continues, "What they do is put English words in a Japanese syntax. They're thinking Japanese but speaking English" (p.4).

Even after twenty years residency in Japan the above slogans still manage to provide a constant source of amusement and therefore, in some way, fulfill the intention of the advertisement -- to catch my attention. As an English language teacher, however, I can't help but be 'aware' of the misuse of the language on both the written and spoken level in and out of the classroom situation.

The misuse of English loan-words in Japanese is another vexing problem for both the native English speaker studying Japanese and the native Japanese speaker studying English. In both cases, new pronunciation, usage and meaning must be re-learned, mostly on a colloquial level.

In this paper I would like to present more examples of the above followed by a possible pedagogical solution to enhance greater and more 'correct' English language awareness for the NNS (Non-native speaker).

2. Examples

At Dr. Ron Carter's Language Awareness Workshop at Temple University in Osaka (Japan) one of the Japanese participants expressed her dismay at not being able to interpret more than two meanings for "A car for the 90's". I thought one or two was a formidable feat considering that the native speakers had trouble with three or four. Should slogans and advertisements be a part of language instruction in our EFL classrooms? Dr. Carter referred to Guy Cook's categorization of the above as literature (with a small "L) being different from Literature (with a big "L", books, plays, etc.), and as such, a starting point for incidental language awareness. Jokes and puns as literature could also be included in the initial stages of language learning rather than being saved for the advanced learner.

The following headline appeared in The Temple Voice, the student newspaper for Temple University in Osaka.

Wada Encourages TUJ students "Get your ticket!"

We can understand Chris Wada's intention after reading the article, but a native speaker might have interpreted the headline in a completely different way, i.e. Mr Wada wants the students to get out of Temple University right away because of something bad that they did! The word 'ticket' is misused again in a non-native-like fashion in the second paragraph. We can't be sure if these were the speaker's actual words or an editorial mistake, in either case, a more careful choice of words would have enhanced the passage. In the same issue (p6), however, there is a perfectly acceptable headline:

Roots and Shoots Begins to Take Root at TUJ

Let's hope the editorial staff pursues a more consistent editing policy. The English language newspapers in Japan provide a good model of a better use of English idioms and puns. It seems that the lower the caliber of the newspaper, the more frequent use of the above because, I assume, the editors believe that this is what its main reading audience, the international community in Japan, favors. To take just one example:

Ponytail of woe: Boy fights for his hair in school

An EFL learner would have difficulty interpreting this headline. One would have to be familiar not only with the referential meaning of 'ponytail' but also of the pun on the phrase 'tale of woe' which may be unfamiliar to even some native speakers. There is another play on words with the phrase 'fights for his hair' which is usually 'fights for his life'. We teachers must try to direct our students' attention also to the representational meanings of words, providing them with variations of vocabulary usage as the occasion arises. The English language newspapers in Japan would be an excellent source of teaching materials for this purpose.

As I mentioned above, the misuse of English loan-words is a problem which EFL teachers in Japan are constantly faced with, in and out of the classroom. There is a useful dictionary to help the native English speaker living in Japan (Webb, 1990) in which loan-words are categorized as follows:

  1. compound words which do not exist in English, for example: en-suto ('engine stop'), gattsu-poozu ('guts pose'), gooru-in (goal in'), etc.
  2. shortened words, for example: katsu ('cutlet'), hoomu (platform'), waa-puro ('word processor'), etc.
  3. words whose pronunciation is very different from the pro- nunciation of the original English word, for example: biniiru ('vinyl'), shinnaa ('thinner'), kaabu ('curb'), etc.
  4. words whose meaning or usage is different from the original English word, for example: manshon ('mansion'), saidaa ('cider'), sutairu ('style'), charenji ('challenge'), etc.
  5. words derived from English words which are not common, for example, kurakushon ('klaxon'), maikurobasu ('microbus), mootaa-puuru (motorpool'), etc.
  6. words derived from British English words which are not used in America, for example: bonnetto ('bonnet' of a car), seroteepu ('sellotape'), supana ('spanner'), etc.
  7. words borrowed from European languages other than English, for example: abekku (French 'avec'), zemi (German, 'Seminar'), koppu (Dutch 'kop'), etc. (p7-8).
Webb reminds the user of this dictionary that "many words have acquired colloquial meanings which are quite different from the meanings given in dictionaries (e.g. burando , foroo, yankii, etc.)" (p8).

This latter point, I feel, provides the most headaches for the EFL teacher. Our students recognize the word as a loanword but are familiar only with its colloquial meaning and usage in Japanese. For example, the item chaamu-pointo (charm point) is commonly used among my junior college female students to refer to an attractive quality of a person's physical makeup, for example:

        Kanojo no chaamu-pointo wa?
        Her charm point is what? (literal translation)

The students most often assume that the use of the loanword in the English translation would be acceptable and are surprised to learn that this is not the case. Acceptable substitutes must then be taught to undo the damage, for example, 'What is her most attractive feature?' or 'What do you find attractive about her?', etc. Occurrences of this misuse of loan-words are prevalent in both oral and written work in the EFL classroom. The foreigner, on the other hand, must learn the above loan- words as part of the target language( Japanese) to be able to communicate successfully.

For both the EFL student and the native English speaker learning Japanese, I feel that Webb's dictionary is a valuable tool.

Let's look at one entry in detail:

    naisu-midoru  (nice-middle)
    well-dressed, attractive middle-aged man

    Furansu ryooriten ni wa wakai onna no ko
    o tsureta naisumidoru ga imashita.

    In the French restaurant a young girl
    brought by a nice-middle was there.
    (my literal translation)

    There was an attractive middle-aged man with
    a young woman in  the French restaurant.
    (Webb's acceptable English translation).

Students who are familiar with this word would use it in an English sentence, as in my translation above, disregarding the impossible English syntactical arrangement. By providing many more examples of the correct adjectival function of this word, hopefully, students would come to an 'awareness' of the proper usage. In the slogans which were cited in the introduction, the English words are used in a similar indiscriminate manner and produce just an effect rather than any kind of communication, just as the agency president said. This may be the desired outcome of the advertising company, but a nightmare for the language teacher.

3. A pedagogical solution

Using the suggested technique of course-book 'situations' including interactions between non-native speakers, or between non-native and native speakers (McCarthy and Carter, 1994) I would like to propose the following as a language awareness activity: (The vocabulary items could be selected from A Handbook of Loanwords):

Junko: I think Mary's charm point is her beautiful hair.
Andy: Charm point? If you're referring to Mary's most attractive feature, her hair, then I certainly agree.
Junko: Yes, right. She also has a very charming personality.
Andy: Yes, she does.

In constructing this dialogue, I have tried to incorporate the model described by Varonis and Gass (1985) in which there is a "negotiation exchange" between interlocutors indicating a misunderstanding. The model (p151) is worth quoting here:

"Our model consists of four primes: (1) a trigger (T), which stimulates or invokes incomplete understanding on the part of the hearer; (2) an indicator(I), which is the hearer's signal that understanding has not been complete; (3) a response (R), which is the original speaker's attempt to clear up the unaccepted input (this is often referred to as a repair); and (4) a reaction to the response(RR), an optional element that signals either the hearer's acceptance or continued difficulty with the speaker's repair.

The example in 1 above, which we repeat here, illustrates all these elements.

    1. NNS1: My father now is retire. --T
       NNS2: retire?-- I
       NNS1: yes. -- R
       NNS2: oh yeah. -- RR "

Their data show how an indicator of incomplete comprehension is often expressed "by echoing a word or phrase of the previous utterance" (p154).

In my original dialogue above, the NS's difficulty with the NNS's use of charm point is indicated by echoing the loanword in question form. As a language awareness exercise for my students, I would have them first listen to the dialogue and try to pick out the misused loanword and the manner in which it was repaired by the NS. They could then look at the transcript and, using the model mentioned above (after an explanation from the teacher), place the symbols for trigger(T), indicator(I), response(R), and reaction to response(RR) at the appropriate places, for example:

Junko: I think Mary's charm point(T) is her beautiful hair.
Andy: Charm point?(I) If you're referring to her most attractive feature, her hair, then I certainly agree.
Junko: Yes, right.(R) She also has a very charming personality.
Andy: Yes, she does.(RR)

I think the above exercise would help focus students' attention on the use/misuse of loan-words in their own speech, especially on the indications of misunderstanding or acceptance in an exchange with a NS. The alternative, correct usage (most attractive feature) would hopefully develop their awareness of the necessity to know the many variations of a certain lexical item. This type of dialogue is a more realistic exchange than the dialogues which appear in most EFL textbooks in which there always seems to be complete understanding which is an unrealistic occurrence.

Although the native English-speaking population of Japan represents only a small percentage of the consumer market I think a bit more 'language awareness' on the part of the slogan creators would make the products more appealing to the international community. As McCarthy and Carter p115) state, it is impossible to "separate culture from linguistic expression"; one cannot just stick English words into a Japanese context without concern for the appropriateness of the linguistic result.


Gass S, Madden C (editors) 1985 Input in Second Language Acquisition . Newbury House.

McCarthy MJ, Carter R 1994 Language as Discourse: Perspectives for Language Teaching . Longman.

Webb J 1990 A Guide to Modern Japanese Loanwords . The Japan Times

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