Gairaigo is a type of Japanese language that originates from foreign countries, and most of it is written in katakana (the simplest of the Japanese scripts with short, straight strokes and angular corners, representing syllables). For instance, バッグ(bag), ミラー(mirror), and リビング(living room)all fall into this category.


I carried out a survey about gairaigo with five of my students, and one answered katakana or gairaigo are both okay, but the rest of them said that they dislike gairaigo and that it’s a bit hard to remember. So, four out of five seem to feel uncomfortable with it.


The reason they don’t like it, they said, is that there are other more proper Japanese words, but Japanese people choose gairaigo unnecessarily, and it seems to sound just like weird and broken English to them. Or, their brain focuses on the Japanese language when they are thinking or speaking it, but then suddenly, unnatural words come up and which look neither Japanese nor English.


Around 1869, we started adopting gairaigo. At first they were written in kanji in an attempt to make these foreign words look like Japanese words; for example 麦酒 beer, 燐寸 matches and 酒精 alcohol. However, the number of gairaigo have been increasing rapidly since around 1965, and since then there has been more of an acceptance of foreign words into the Japanese language. So, these days gairaigo are written almost always in katakana, so the previous examples would be: ビール、マッチ、アルコール, respectively.


In my opinion, we certainly use too many gairaigo words, especially at the office. Why do we use so many? What if we changed them to proper Japanese? Presentation, project, and meeting are typically spoken as gairaigo words and written in katakana as プレゼンテーション, プロジェクト, ミーティング, even though we do have native Japanese words for them as well.


If we speak in regular Japanese instead of gairaigo, it may be easier to understand. But today, it’s also true that there are many words which are difficult to translate. What are radio, pen and dessert in Japanese? I can explain what they are, but if you say to translate it into one word, nothing comes to my mind, or it will sound very unnatural even though I can do it.


Most of my students speak English fluently, so they understand the meaning of gairaigo quickly, but when they hear it for the first time, they do not easily get it because of the different pronunciation. For example, in Japanese pronunciation, coffee goes to coohii, ice cream goes to aisu criimu, etc. The names of foods, animals or flowers cannot be used in this way. But, I wonder if we really need any other unnecessary gairaigo.


By the way, there are a few katakana characters which look very similar and confuse foreign people. That is シ and ツ, and ソ and ン. When people get frustrated with these letters, they often make a very interesting face that I enjoy watching.


I also have group lessons to teach outside of italki, and I teach level two students, which means they are still beginners. Last week, we did a katakana game where all the students had small katakana cards. I showed them a card with a picture on it, and then they tried to spell the object in the picture with their katakana cards. When I showed them a picture of シーツ (sheets), many students got confused and chose the katakana cards ツーシ . It was so funny that we laughed a lot, and the class really livened up from that moment.


Sometimes katakana or gairaigo might be annoying to you, but there are already many foreign words within real Japanese. Try to get used to it, and let’s have fun! Learning a language should be fun.



Edited by Ilene Springer

Hero Image By Jessica Spengler (CC BY 2.0)