I've occasionally heard people who aren't native speakers of English complain about gairaigo (words derived from European languages, not words derived from Chinese) being difficult to learn.

Sometimes I hear it from people who are reasonably fluent in English (and therefore should know the word the gairaigo is derived from), and sometimes I hear it from people who aren't native speakers of Chinese (and therefore don't have the advantage of already knowing Chinese characters). I'm wondering - do native speakers of English have an advantage over people who learnt English as a second language when it comes to learning gairaigo?

(I know this sounds subjective, but organisations have evaluated how difficult it is to learn specific languages, so "difficulty in learning" must be measurable)

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    "...reasonably fluent in English (and therefore should know the word the gairaigo is derived from)". Why? Just because I am a native English speaker doesn't mean I know the origins of バイト (German Arbeit meaning part-time job). Not all foreign loan words come from English. While a majority of them do (hence English-speakers may have an edge), the fact that 和製英語 bastardises some English-loan words until the meaning is almost the opposite of the origin English word, leads me to beleive that knowning English =/= a significant advantage. Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 9:35
  • @TheWanderingCoder "バイト" is relatively easy for those familiar with the phrase Arbeit macht frei. (Does this count as Godwin's law?)
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 10:46
  • If "learning" includes meaning as well as pronunciation such that Japanese can understand it, for me gairaigo is difficult. It is a slower and more deliberate process than just saying a naturally sounding Japanese word for me.
    – david.t
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 15:04
  • Alas, I am not familiar with German at all, coming from a completely non-German background and growing up in Australia does not afford me copious amounts of Euro-centric liguinstical learning opportunities (I know that the phrase was written over WW2 concentration camps though). My inclusing of バイト was merely an example. I was attempting to express that your statement seems to imply that knowledge of English, implies knowledge of all other foreign loan word origins. Which I don't beleive to be so. Also, answers to this question will be largely opinion driven. Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 0:26
  • I can get the words derived from English or German, but some gairaigo derived from other languages make no sense until I look them up. I think it depends on your literacy with the source language. Native or not maybe does not matter too much, as they pretty much follow Japanese pronunciation rules.
    – user3169
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 7:00

2 Answers 2


I can definitely say I have seen a trend among people with 漢字圏 backgrounds to avoid カタカナ loanwords in favor of 漢字, where there is an equivalent (regardless of how unnatural it might sound). In those cases, the subjects would mostly be native in Chinese, which is fairly far removed from the European (Germanic and Latin) words that 外来語 generally hails from.

This trend, is of course also apparent with non-natives of Chinese, who happen to be really good at 漢字, or otherwise have an easy time remembering 漢字.

Other than that, across the board, I've mostly seen an initial ease in remembering the words, but a slight delay in remembering what exactly they mean. Take:

It's generally easy to remember the word, if you're familiar with a word that sounds like it, but since it means something completely different from the original word, there is a delay in remembering this new meaning.

So, the main "difficulty in learning" I have observed, is with Chinese Language natives, who are also not English Language natives.


(Seems very opinion-based to me, but nevertheless)

I'm not so sure it's easier for native English speakers for different reasons :

  • Some 外来語 don't come from English : アルバイト (from "Arbeit" in german), ズボン (from "Jupon" in french), コップ (from "Copo" in Portuguese or "Kop" in Dutch, sources diverge) etc...

  • Some words can be confusing for a native English speaker like マンション which definetly isn't a Mansion or スマート which means "elegant, stylish".

  • A great majority (I guess) of Japanese learners also speak english fluently enough to not be startled by words like ピンク, サッカー or コンピューター. And if they don't, well, they just have to learn 2 similar words at the same time :).

  • 外来語 aren't that hard to learn for a Western-language speaker anyway (it might be harder for russians, arabs, africans... I don't know). Let's assume you're an English native speaker who's learning French, German, Portuguese and Japanese for the first time, with no other linguistic knowledge than English. Which words would be the hardest to learn between these : Comprendre (in French), Kalt (in German), Frutas (in Portuguese) or their equivalent in Japanese : 分かる, 冷たい and 果物?

Those examples might be ad hoc but I'm pretty sure they can be generalized, especially for complex words (think about : syndrome d'immunodéficience acquise (French) and 後天性免疫不全症候群{こうてんせいめんえきふぜんしょうこうぐん})

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    To be fair, smart in English does have a similar meaning to the Japanese meaning in certain contexts. "He looked smart in his new suit", for example. Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 0:29

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