How Should We Pronounce Foreign Words?

How should we pronounce foreign words? 

Syelle Graves, Writing for
8-minute read
Episode #544
how to pronounce foreign words

Why Are People Sensitive about How We Pronounce Loanwords?

Some people mock speakers for pronouncing loanwords using the speech patterns of the borrowing language, and other people mock speakers for pronouncing loanwords in the donor language “accent!” We just can’t win.

Let’s talk about that first type first. Unfortunately, it is very common for people to criticize speakers for pronouncing these words the way that the borrowing language requires. For example, people might make fun of you if you pronounce the L’s in “tortilla.” However, there are of course many reasons to avoid mocking speakers for using their own accents for foreign words, like that. For example, it’s important to remember that while you may speak the lending language, such as French or Spanish, fluently, or well enough to pronounce some words correctly, others haven’t had such exposure, or the privilege of education, or of learning and being exposed to other languages. Speakers are usually just pronouncing the words as they have always heard them. Also, think of how impossible it can be for speakers to produce sounds from languages we don’t know at all. Plus, if you happen to be using a word borrowed from a language you are familiar with, that works out great, but languages borrow from hundreds of other languages, so there is no way to make everyone able to pronounce all sounds around the world! (Here they are—click and see how many you can say!) Further, as blogger LinguiSchtick explains, brain studies show that sometimes, speakers are not even able to perceive certain foreign sounds that they don’t have in their native language—let alone produce them when pronouncing a loanword. (For more about the challenges of learning a language as an adult, and the varying degrees of bilingualism, read this article). So, it’s best not to accuse people of “butchering” a language they don’t know, especially when they are doing the best they can and speaking the way that they know.

Now let’s talk about the second way of pronouncing loanwords that people are sensitive about: honoring, so to speak, the original pronunciation. How should bilingual folks pronounce loanwords when they are fluent speakers of both languages? Bilingual anchorperson Vanessa Ruiz was criticized last year for pronouncing Spanish words with a Spanish “accent.” (You can read more about that story on LinguiSchtick’s blog.) In some ways, it seems unfair or at least unkind to criticize bilingual people for speaking as they normally would in their own language. When you hear people pronounce foreign words correctly, they may be doing it because they are they are engaging in an automatic act of “code-switching”: a language phenomenon that occurs largely unconsciously, and usually when the speaker knows that the listener is also bilingual. 

What may have been off-putting to some about Ruiz is the fact that the code-switching felt less natural on live TV, because perhaps only half of her audience speaks Spanish. On the other hand, it could really only be labeled a communicative problem if the audience members who speak only English could not understand what she meant, and that was probably not an issue. Rolling R’s in Spanish words doesn’t really prevent English speakers from getting the message.

Another possibility is that people reacted to her in anger because they feel envious of people who are bilingual, though they may not be fully aware of it. Especially in the U.S., where learning a foreign language often isn’t required in schools, being fully fluent in a second language is pretty rare. Another possibility, also according to LinguiSchtick, is that people who do or do not pronounce Spanish words in Spanish ways may be expressing certain subtle political views about immigration, and cultural assimilation, which can definitely get folks riled up.

What About When We Learn a New Language, and Speak It to Native Speakers Who Don’t know English? How Should We Pronounce Their English Loanwords?

This is an interesting question! A good rule of thumb is, when you are speaking a foreign language, make your best effort to pronounce the English words the way they do, mostly because if you switch back into English accent patterns for English loanwords (hamburger is a common one), your listeners may not understand you. This applies to proper nouns and proper names, too, not just loanwords. Some people feel it is important to pronounce their own names as they truly sound in their own language, but that may not always work out well. For example, because French has no H sound, many French speakers pronounce “Hannah,” like “Anna,” no matter how much the Hannahs may try to insist otherwise! You could also find a compromise, like keeping the vowels and consonants that both languages share, but adapting the missing ones, or maybe adjusting syllable stress to a more natural pattern for the language you are speaking.

The neat thing about this is that sometimes people will switch to a foreign accent to say a name, like “Alice” as “ah-LEASE” in French, even when speaking in English, but only when the speaker knows that the other person speaks French, too, or, has met the francophone Alice in question. This is also a form of code-switching.

Here’s a funny story about a certain linguist who spent a year in France during college. She found herself following along pretty well, but then would hit a snag when French people spoke American names in a fully French accent, like this: “Sarah Jessica Parker” or “Elton John.” When she stared, baffled, they would say, “How could you not know who we’re talking about? He/she is so famous.” So, these pronunciations make sense for French people to communicate naturally with each other. It is a bit like the way we say “Paris” in English with the “S” at the end; it’s a proper noun that we use so much that it is officially an English word, even though it is spelled the same in both languages. So, this linguist learned that if she pronounced those English celebrities with a thick French pronunciation, the way they did, she was understood much faster.


About the Author

Syelle Graves, Writing for Grammar Girl

Syelle Graves has a master’s degree in linguistics and is the assistant director of ILETC (Institute for Language Education in Transcultural Context). You can find her at syellegraves.com.

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