The Borrowing Dilemma: How Should I Pronounce a Foreign Word That I Insert into My Conversation?

The words for “coffee” in English, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish all point to the same thing, and yet their pronunciations differ ever so slightly in each language. These words, called borrowings, all have a common origin, and sometimes it’s easy to figure out the definition of a new word in one language with knowledge of a borrowing in another language.

This phenomenon is fairly common for nouns like place names and people’s names, so, for the few languages I speak—Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and English—I can easily notice those trivial details of diversity.

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I’ve even started to understand borrowings in the Korean that I’m learning. Therefore, I strive to pronounce words as close to their original pronunciation as possible to do their origins justice. If I’m talking to my Chinese mom about Hollywood, for example, instead of using the Chinese pronunciation “hǎoláiwù,” I say “HAH-lee-wood.” And, if I’m talking to my American friends about Tokyo, instead of the three-syllable English “TOH-kee-oh,” I say the two-syllable Japanese “tōkyō.”

But such decisions have betrayed me. Neither my mom nor my friends were able to understand what I said when I referred to the Japanese city. Even though the Japanese and English versions sound similar, to my American friends the sounds “tōkyō” didn’t link to a city in Japan as “TOH-kee-oh” probably would have. I was surprised that such a small difference in pronunciation would prevent Americans from understanding me. Perhaps if I spoke English with a Japanese accent throughout, “tōkyō” would sound more like an English word than if it popped up randomly during an English conversation. Thus, I concluded I should just stay with English pronunciations.

And yet, that choice also came back to bite me. One day I was chatting with a friend who understands Japanese, and the word karaoke came up. Confidently, I chose the English pronunciation to insert into our conversation. However, as soon as the word left me, my friend fired back, “Wow, Xin, that hurts my ears. I know you speak Japanese, so say it the right way!” Now, when I need to use a foreign word during a conversation, I go through a mini-flowchart in my head (see below)—or just change the subject.

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  • john

    hmmmm, your thinking processes are beautiful and wonderful to go through as you describe them in your article. I do think your considerations are important as more and more cities have people who are from different countries and speak many different languages.

    Let me give you the thoughts of a person who was born and raised in New York City. NYC has several hundred spoken languages within its jurisdiction. On any given day you can hear any one of the several major languages and a host of languages that are in decline.

    I would suggest you use your flow chart in a formal environment, at work, in an international forum, in an educational environment.

    Mangling a language has its usefulness. Sure some people will be insulted at hearing their language mispronounced. But the kids usually get it right and would not find your flow chart useful at all. Follow the kids. They have the most fun and are usually the inventors of the new combined language. Increasingly more people understand the combined language which somehow manages to mangle all the languages involved in some new rhythmic word that somehow everyone can understand or figure out.

    An example of this in NYC is what is now called “Spanglish”. Another example of this the music form that combines salsa and reggae. The music is wonderful! We also see this throughout the Caribbean. Travel to Trinidad and experience the Hindu mixing with African Calypso and Chinese and European. Something else is born that is beautiful and wonderful.

    In sum, I do believe your approach is important, but in a more formal environment. I think approaching it from “what would the kids do” is also valuable and I could almost guarantee would have a broader cultural and linguistic effect over the long run.

    Thanks for your great contribution.

  • Lauren of Spanish Sabores

    This is a great way to describe this phenomenon. I’ve always wondered how to go about this and this makes perfect sense. But I still hate saying restaurant names like McDonalds and Burger King with a Spanish accent! Oh well…

  • Mike Smith

    I speak spanish and have spent quite bit of time in Mexico I looked diligently for the name of the last aztec emporor MONTEZUMA no such person only to discover that it is MOCTEZUMA and pronounced quite differently TIJUANA is not ti-a-wana is two sylables TI -wana
    When mexico I pronounce many words the mexican aztec or myan way So I have to make a strenuous effort to use the United States way of saying it Is this correct protocol even Its a bit like Rangoon which is from Portugese no doubt Anglo sised but changed by the military junta in Burma to Yangon to rid the British influence Is it when Rome _____?

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