Pronouncing ELs’ Names Correctly

I once expressed to a Korean parent my dismay that so many of my students from Korea came to school with an Anglicized name. Since I taught in an elementary school, it was usually the parents who picked a new name for their children. The parent told me that students change their names to accommodate English speakers; the perception is that Americans can’t pronounce unusual names. I was dismayed by this because it’s not that we can’t do it, but that the importance of pronouncing names correctly is not recognized. A student of mine, Yeon Jae, tried to correct teachers and classmates when they mispronounced his name, but most of his teachers and all of his classmates called him “Young.” Yeon Jae finally gave up.

Last year I wrote a blog entitled “7 Naming Customs From Around the World” in which I discussed the importance of names. I believe that a person’s name is part of their cultural identity. Students who have immigrated to the United States have already suffered the trauma of leaving behind school friends, neighbors, grandparents, and other family members. We should not take their name away. Teachers and school personnel can have the correct pronunciation on their cell phones so that they can practice it. They can also write the name phonetically. It’s up to schools to get it right.

The My Name, My Identity Campaign

The My Name, My Identity campaign that supports pronouncing students’ names correctly and valuing diversity is important. This campaign is backed by the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE), the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, and the California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE).

According to Yee Wan, President of NABE, mispronouncing a student’s name truly negates his or her identity, which, in turn, can hinder academic progress. I agree with this. Communication with people from other cultures is a 21st-century skill. Respecting a person’s name and identity is key to effective communication. Read this excellent EdWeek blog entitled “Mispronouncing Students’ Names: A Slight That Can Cut Deep.”

I think this campaign is an excellent undertaking for a school. Students pledge to pronounce people’s names correctly. We can help children develop pride in their heritage by spreading the word about this campaign: Pass this article on to your school administrators and colleagues. Students’ name stories can be made into a videos. Here is NABE President Yee Wan’s story.

Resources

Here are a few great resources for your learning and enjoyment:

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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5 Responses to Pronouncing ELs’ Names Correctly

  1. Maria Wallmar says:

    I had learned in my country that you have to spell, write and say people ‘s name the right way. In this country people pronouncing in a different way or write the names without the hyphen. I went to Puerto Rico and I saw one of my professor from college. I gave him my address and when I wrote my name I did not put the hyphen. He asked me are you Maria or María with the hyphen. The same thing happen with my last name. I do not like it when people make mistake with my name or the call me another one, imaging a child. My nephew had a bad experience in school also with his name. After that he did not want anyone to call him by his name he was calling by his nickname. It is very important to know the pronunciation and the spell of the name in order for the children to feel proud of their name and where they come from.

  2. Vibeke (Vee) Morfield says:

    Thank you for this interesting article – I have a very unusual Danish name and it is rarely pronounced or written correctly. As a child during the 1970’s & 80’s having an unusual name was rare. I gave up correcting my teachers (though my friends always got it right), I was even made to use my middle name by one teacher. Even now I find it hard professionally and have shortened it to save embrassment. On a plus side when I do tell people my correct name, it’s always a talking point but I always give my shortened ‘nickname’ as its easier & I hate having to keep correcting. There are a few occasions when people do remember my proper name & I just love it!

  3. Lisa Rubinstein says:

    Anne, I so appreciate where you are coming from. However, I am torn between your’s and Judie’s take on this.

    I have been teaching Korean women at a community center for a year. Many come and go. It is excruciatingly difficult to remember and pronounce all of their names, especially since many of them have two-part names. I’d say around 20% of them had Americanized names, and it sure was easier. I probably was mispronouncing the other names incorrectly half the time, but they appreciated teaching me new sound patterns, as I enjoyed teaching them sounds new to their native tongue. I’ve interviewed for a new job, fingers crossed, where their policy is strict about using student’s native names. Students will be from many nationalities and the class size will be at least 20. Yikes!

    I want to honor my students’ and their heritage. Does anyone have advice on how to memorize students names? I have accepted that part of it is that I’m already in my 50’s and perhaps not as sharp as I was in college, but I really struggle with this! Any help would be appreciated.

    Thanks!
    Lisa

  4. Dogismylife says:

    I was greatly inspired by your thoughts. I am a Japanese immigrant and assume it’s difficult to pronounce Japanese name for American people. There is another good option that teachers ask students’ nickname called in their country (it may be easier to pronounce). I would think it can reduce student’s affective filter (Krashen,1982) and may create stress-free atmosphere.

  5. AnneGrethe Hoffman says:

    Dear Judie,

    I find your post very illuminating and I concur that ‘correct’ pronunciation of a name is an important consideration in acknowledging a student’s cultural identity and heritage. From personal experience though I know this is a conundrum especially for the adult language learner and/or immigrant. You simply get tired of constantly teaching and re-teaching your name and still having it ‘mispronounced’, you stop correcting people and are now ‘stuck’ with a ‘new’ name! I’ve yet to meet anybody here capable of saying my name the way it sounds in Denmark. Rather it becomes a very unpleasant guttural fur-ball sounding event; thus, when I’m state side I’m Anne and when I’m ‘home’ I’m AnneGrethe. This sentiment was echoed by several of the Chinese college studetns I’ve tutored. It was obvious that Jimmy was the American identity and despite my insistence on learning his (and others) Chinese name he shared he much preferred Jimmy as he found it too grating and cumbersome to continue to get the ‘right’ pronunciation from a non-Chinese person. It is a sentiment I totally understand and thus we were Jimmy and Anne and were both quite happy with that.

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