ABSTRACT Although vocabulary learning has begun to gain due attention in L2 acquisition research, studies have been scarce on 12 acquisition of culturally loaded words—those that are similar in primary meaning but different in connotation between LI and L2. This study attempts to determine empirically whether or not EFL students' understanding of culturally loaded words approximates that of native speakers of English, and how much English proficiency level may account for the extent of this approximation. The study involved 125 EFL students (all English majors with 64 being intermediate-level and 61 advanced-level students) from a university in China and 61 native-speaker students from an American university. The three groups were asked to rate the appropriateness of six culturally loaded words and four culturally neutral words in sentences that provided adequate contextual information. Statistical analysis of the three groups' ratings indicates that there is some limited but inadequate EFL approximation towards the target model in the understanding of culturally loaded words and that even advanced EFL students' understanding of most of the words differs significantly from that of the native speakers. The findings suggest that EFL/ESL educators and researchers should pay more attention to this special type of vocabulary and that vocabulary should be taught in adequate and appropriate social and cultural context.