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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