So, what’s your English name?

Posted in TESOL basics

--- Advertisement ---

Recently I wrote about Disney English in China.

That article mentioned one kiddie named Wei Ziyun who has supposedly adopted “Robot” as his “English name” to show his love of that adorable scamp Wall-E. How cute, huh.

Bollocks. Crap like that makes me wanna puke.

The Old Naming Lucky-Dip – (without the fun of getting to dip)

Years ago in China (and Korea, to a lesser extent, and no doubt plenty of other countries) English teachers assigned an “English name” to their wards. No discussion, no debate. Just hear you go, son; on yer bike. A little bit like Joe’s system for the naming of crooks in Reservoir Dogs – just without the whiny Buscemi and Tarantino objections.

video of Joe dealing out names
Naming the Little Buggers

So you could always tell a student was from China because you’d ask “What’s your name?” and they’d say “Ethel” or “Herbert” or “Agnes” or “Ignatius”.

Kids Today

This caper still goes on, of course, but kiddies nowdays reject that and, instead, you get some smart arse from Taiwan (or mainland China every now and again) who insists on being called “Spiderman” or “Neo” or “Strong”.

Even worse: I’ve actually known teachers to indulge them for some reason! :shock:

I’ve often wondered about that. Is it some kind of hyperactive and wildly-misplaced sense of “cultural sensitivity” running amok there? These kids are plainly trying it on and seeing how far they can push it.

I stumbled completely randomly on this post at a very sassy blog called “Yes and Yes”. The post is funny and so are the first few comments before the spammers take over. English names chosen by my Chinese students by Sarah von Bargen.

Bugbear #1 Rears Its Head

This leads me to one of my personal bugbears: “Have you got an English name?”

EFL teachers should NEVER ask students this question. It’s patronising, insulting, and cultural imperialism at its finest. :evil:

All our students have perfectly good names. Names by which they’ve been called their entire lives.

We expect them to remember those voluminous vocab lists we foist upon them week in and week out (indeed, we test them on those lists) so why is it unreasonable to expect us to remember all of our students’ actual names?

One complaint I’ve heard, especially regarding Korean names – I’m not sure why but Korean names are always #1 on this list – is that they have sounds and sound combinations that make them hard to remember and they always have “two” names and blah bl-blah blah blah…

All I can say to that is: “See comment above regarding vocab lists.”

There’s simply no justification at all for the old “Do you have an English name?” question. None.

Self-Imposed Cultural Imperialism

Plenty of students end up adopting an English name and slapping it on themselves in a defeatist attempt to avert yet more teachers from mispronouncing their name, floundering to try and remember their name, or flat out calling them by another name altogether for the entire term!

Now, if a student adopts an English name and they’re happy (or “happy enough”) with it, they’ll volunteer it when you ask the – perfectly appropriate – question: “What’s your name?”

Sidenote: I say “happy enough” because many a student has said to me privately over a beer: “Y’know, I don’t really like the name Jason. I prefer Xiang, actually.”

Wow, what’s unreasonable about that?

I know that when a student offers their “English name”, you then have to say “Okay, great, but I need to know your actual name so I can check who you are on my register here”.

But that’s just the way it’s gotta be. You’re only going to have to say that anyway.

And, yep, if you don’t have any problem with “foreign names”, it gets a bit tired and patronising from your side of the fence to hear “My name is Tommy. My [nationality] name is [whatever it is] but that’s probably hard for you… so you can just call me Tommy.”

This is insulting in its own way, too, but I reason that it’s purely a product of TEFLer after TEFLer having mangled the poor boy’s name year after year because they couldn’t be bothered to make an effort.

Can I have some flied lice?

This, then, leads me to the closely-related bugbear of butchering the pronunciation of students’ names.

The old “flied lice” gag is unlikely to be funny to your average EFL teacher yet I’ve routinely heard things from teachers like:

* “To-MOW-ko” (for Tomoko, of course, where the pitch jump “stress” is, if anywhere, on the first syllable)

* “MYOUNG Hee”, which is a completely different name to “MOON Hee” (it would be like calling me Desley or Lester. Or Margaret)!

* Or… (not to be confined to East Asian names!), how about “Geezer” (as in, “He’s a right diamond geezer” or that place in Egypt) instead of “Geza” for that Hungarian chap who’s always 10 minutes early.

* Or… “Orally” for that sweet young French girl in whose mouth butter wouldn’t melt.

* Or whatever… I’ve heard hundreds of clangers that have made me wince.

There’s a Disjunction Going On

As I said before, we drill students on their pronunciation. We’re supposed to be experts at isolating sounds and then knowing how to better articulate them, and so on… Yet every day of the week there are teachers calling their students by some bastardized version of their names. And there’s no good excuse for it, really.

Yes, there are sounds that don’t exist in English. Yes, there are tones that you sometimes need to be aware of. Yes, this; yes, that.

Yes, people in [non-English-speaking country where you live] can’t pronounce your name correctly. But I’d wager for the most part they’re not language teaching professionals.

Japanese people, for example, pronounce my name “re-zu-ri-i” (レズリー) and I’m fine with that. Yet when I lived in Japan and was talking with my English teaching colleagues in English, they pronounced it “Leslie”. Back to Japanese and I was “rezurii”.

So, c’mon… a lot of EFL teachers just need to make more of an effort. You must notice when students mispronounce your name, right? Well, don’t you think they notice when you mispronounce theirs – or, worse, make no effort whatsoever to approximate it?

Not saying I’ve always been perfect, by the way. I’m pretty sure I’ve mangled a name or two in my time. :oops: But I’ve always tried really hard not to; to listen carefully, get the student to repeat it as necessary, ask them if my pron is okay, and basically make a real effort (not just put on a show that I’m making an effort).

Regarding pet-peeve #1, however, I can confidently say that I have never said to a student “And what’s your English name?”


What do you think?
Am I just being a grumpy old bastard? Or is the disjunction real? And what are some clangers that you‘ve heard? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below…


Vote this up or down. Select: Vote This DownVote This Up
No Ratings Yet | Be the First to Vote!
Loading ... Loading ...

Posted in TESOL basics

Tags: , , , , ,


Feel Free to Suggest a Topic

Would you like me to cover something in particular?
Just get in touch via my Contact Form.

6 Responses to “So, what’s your English name?”

  1. Jennifer Jennifer says:

    Interesting point. I have always wanted to ask my students if they want to choose an English name, just for class, but I haven't had the guts to do so.

    I teach in Japan, and the names aren't particularly difficult to remember (except for the time I called little Shouyo by the wrong name — Shouyu (soy sauce)).

    In elementary school, I went to a Spanish language camp, and I remember the name I chose to this day (Carmen).

    This gave me the chance to have an exotic name of my own choosing (granted, it was only for a week). It was a real treat, and I think it would be fun to pass it on to the kids! We'll see if I get the chance. Probably not :???:

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

    •  Leslie says:

      Hi, Jennifer

      Great story about soy sauce boy! :lol:

      You raise an interesting point about the cool feeling for kids of having an "exotic name". I can see how this works. And as a bit of fun, maybe.

      But I personally wouldn't push it too far and actively encourage kids to adopt a name other than their own. It would be more a case of "'Try on' a new name if you want to, but I really like yours just the way it is".

      Migrants, on the other hand, often take on a name that either sounds more like the lingua franca of the country they live in or is from that culture. In these cases there are bigger socio-political factors at play than just avoiding name-mangling.

      My little rave against EFL teachers is that learners of English can at any time decide to adopt an "English name" if they want to. Ain't no one to stop them. Least of all me. But they shouldn't be made to feel that they "should" or "have to" or that it's even "the done thing" or "expected" – or just giving up in despair – when they already have perfectly good names that teachers should be respectful of.

      Re: Japanese kids… they might like the "exoticism" as you did at Spanish camp, but I've not known many Japanese to adopt an "English name". Probably because, as you say, they're usually not that hard to pronounce or remember.

      Anyway, nice to hear from you.


      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. Hamidah Hamidah says:

    Well I've definitely "butchered" a few names of my own: like when I called Regi, Reggae! :roll: It does make for a great laugh in the classroom however and the kids seem to enjoy it…

    I, too, remember my German name (Ulla-which I chose) from junior high, but would never even consider asking my students to select an English name. If I'm a language acquisition teacher/expert (which, in my mind, all ESL teachers are or are striving to become) then I better practice what I preach and produce that L2 to the best of my ability. I actually kind of "use" my imperfect pronunciation (which later becomes perfect, of course) to show that: "Hey! We're in this thing together. I'm struggling with your language with a goal of fluency just as you are struggling with mine." Perhaps their goals are different than mine, but yes, to me it shows that I'm not just full of hot air and know something about what I'm teaching. Besides that, there's a reason why Jennifer "didn't have the guts to" ask her students to select an English name…

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  3. kate kate says:

    Just found your blog! Interesting post. Here (Spain) I've never heard of people adopting English names for class, but of course Spanish names are quite familiar in many English-speaking countries, anyway. I remember being given a Spanish name in 7th grade Spanish class (Lupe– I hated it!) and while I can see how it might work in some circumstances, I'm not fond of the concept. I work in a Primary school and we have students from other countries but no one tries to give them a Spanish name, either.

    I really like your point about how we need to put in the same effort our students do regarding attention to pronunciation in another language–especially when what's at stake is so important– the students' names. Of course, I have it pretty easy in this regard since I am fluent in Spanish and the names are not hard to pronounce, but I will keep it mind with my foreign students.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4.  Leslie says:

    Hi, Kate

    I appreciate your thoughtful comments, especially the two points you make about the non-Spanish students.


    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Leave a Reply