7 Naming Customs From Around the World

Immigrant students in the United States  have already suffered the trauma of leaving behind their extended family, friends, teachers, and schools. They enter a U.S. school and can also lose their name. Their name may be deliberately changed by parents or school staff, or an error may be made in the order of the name or its spelling. These mistakes can have lasting effects on students.

A person’s name is part of his or her cultural identity, and it is up to schools to get it right. In order for teachers, administrators, or office staff in your school  to enroll students with the correct the name, they need to understand  the naming conventions of different cultures. Here are seven naming customs from different cultures.

1) Korean names are written with the family name first. If Yeon Suk has the family name “Lee,” his name will be written Lee Yeon Suk. The given name usually has two parts, and it follows the family name. Either part of the given name can be a generation marker: Two- part given names should not be shortened—that is, Lee Yeon Suk should be called Yeon Suk, not Yeon.

3) Russian names have three parts: a given name, a patronymic (a middle name based on the father’s first name), and the father’s surname. If Viktor Aleksandrovich Rakhmaninov has two children, his daughter’s name would be Svetlana Viktorevna Rakhmaninova. (The “a” at the end of all three names shows that she is female.) Her brother would be Mikhail Viktorevich Rakhmaninov.

3) It’s hard to generalize naming conventions for children from Spanish-speaking countries. These students have a given name (often a two-part name) and two surnames: the father’s family name followed by the mother’s. For example, if a child registers as Ana Lorena López Ramírez, the school should retain both López and Ramírez in the child’s records. The child should be called Ana Lorena.  Schools often drop the father’s name, which leads to confusion. Always ask parents if you aren’t sure which names to use.

4) In India, Hindu names are usually based on the child’s  raashis, which is determined by the position of the planets at the date and time of birth. The resulting names are often shortened by family and friends. For example, teachers may call brother and sister Aditya and Aarushi by these formal names, but family and friends may call them Adi and Ashi. Remember that India has many religions and languages, and naming practices will be influenced by them.

5) Chinese names are made up of three characters: a one-character family name followed by a two-character given name. The child’s official name is used for the birth certificate and for school.  Chinese children often have a different name that is used among friends, schoolmates, and colleagues.

6) Afghan names traditionally consist of only a first name. Last names are often chosen, when needed, using tribal affiliation, place of birth, profession, or honorific titles. This may result in people within the same family having different last names. Male given names are compound or double names and often include an Islamic or Arabic component such as Ahmad or Mohammad, and women are generally given Persian or Pashto names.

7) Somali children have three personal names and no family name. In order to identify someone, all three names must be used. Names are a combination of a child’s personal name, the father’s personal name, and the paternal grandfather’s personal name.

Many school districts are faced with immigrant children from a wide variety of countries from all over the world. We should not apply the format of naming conventions from the United States on children from other areas of the world. There is an abundance of information on naming conventions on the Internet. An excellent resource to give teachers a background on naming practices is A Guide to Names and Naming Practices.

U.S. school districts need to strive to show respect for the names of our students and encourage our schools to learn to pronounce names from other cultures. Please share the naming conventions from your culture with us by writing a comment in the box below.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and has been providing professional development for teachers of ELs around the United States since 2008. She is the author and coauthor of seven books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “The Essential Guide for Educating Beginning English Learners“ with Debbie Zacarian. She is founder of the website everythingESL.net and was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher." She is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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8 Responses to 7 Naming Customs From Around the World

  1. A fascinating topic! After an evening with Carolyn Graham (of Jazz Chants fame) my colleague, Karen Taylor, wrote a blog about names that I think you’ll find interesting. It also includes an activity that we’ve used for many years with our students at many levels called “What Color is Your Name?” The activity helps students find a way of pronouncing their names that accomplishes two things. First, it must be a pronunciation they feel comfortable with and second, it must adhere to some basic rules of English pronunciation so that when they introduce themselves people can “hear” their names. I hope you enjoy it!

    http://elts.solutions/what-color-is-your-name/

  2. Beth Evans says:

    This is so important for people to start gaining an understanding of who the students are seated in front of them! Thanks, Judy! I’ve been working on finding out just this information from our liaisons. You can find the information at this website: https://sites.google.com/a/bsdvt.org/ell-teaching-tips/contact

  3. Samantha says:

    I always ask my students what they want to be addressed as, and then do that. Many students when they come to western countries choose nicknames and want to make friends and assimilate into society the best they can, and understand that if they have a really long first or last name that is hard to pronounce or spell, it may give them trouble in the future, in business as well as personal matters. When I go abroad, I always ask people to call me “Sam”. It’s short and everyone can pronounce it. My real name “Samantha” is too hard for some, as many other countries languages do not have the “th” sound and therefore they cannot pronounce it properly. So I just tell everyone to call me Sam to make life easier for everyone, and many students do the same.

    • Judie Haynes Judie Haynes says:

      I once expressed to a Korean friend my dismay that so many of my Korean students came to school with an English name. Since I taught in an elementary school, it was usually the parents who picked a new name for their children. My friend said that they changed their names for us. That Americans couldn’t pronounce unusual names. I was dismayed by this because Korean names are short and not difficult to pronounce. I think our staff and English-native speaking students should be asked to make this effort. I honestly tried to discourage parents from making this change. If you have adult students, I can see honoring the name changes. They need to make decisions about their jobs and their future. They have made a decision for themselves.

  4. Robert Sheppard Robert Sheppard says:

    Hi Judie,

    Thanks for the insightful post! I learned a lot about naming in some cultures I was unfamiliar with.

    In my adult ed program, we just had a class on how to pronounce Chinese names, and we’re thinking about offering the same class to the local public school system.

    I’m definitely in agreement that we should show respect for the languages and cultures of our students, and that includes names. For me, a sincere and sustained attempt at correct pronunciation is the best way we can show that respect.

    As an administrator, though, I often encounter a lot of trouble keeping things straight. We have no choice but to work with forms and databases which need to fit names into a consistent, one-size-fits-all format, simply for practical reasons, so we can organize and retrieve information. This becomes really tricky at times! So, while we make a point of respecting diverse naming conventions, at my program we also make an effort to communicate US naming conventions to our students, and make sure that they know the importance of reporting their name as consistently as possible in “paperwork” situations. This can save students a lot of headaches down the road!

    • Judie Haynes Judie Haynes says:

      I applaud your efforts to encourage students to report their names as consistently as possible. I have Spanish-speaking friends who have their names reported in many different ways with varying last names. It’s o.k. to have a nickname, but when applying for jobs or for college, all names should be consistent on official documents.

  5. Valerie S. Jakar says:

    I sent this to our TESOL Diversity Collaborative Dorum:
    Judy’s latest Blog is very relevant to our ‘mission’. Valuing names and naming conventions is so important in our work. Thank you Judy! VSJ

    • Judie Haynes Judie Haynes says:

      Thank you Valerie. Is there any information that my blog readers can access about the TESOL Diversity Collaborative Forum? Can you post a link? This sounds like a very interesting endeavor.

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