Culturally sensitive ways to learn names that are unfamiliar to you

Ask, pronounce, repeat.
Ask, pronounce, repeat.
Image: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes
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When you have a name that’s difficult to pronounce, it can be awkward to correct people, and even more so when people say it wrong time and again. As Ephrat Livni wrote recently for Quartz, it’s easy to let such mispronunciations slide, but names are fundamental parts of identity and should not be easily given up on—especially in schools.

Clare McLaughlin previously reported for Quartz that there are long-lasting impacts for  students whose names are mispronounced. In 2012, a study by Rita Kohli, assistant professor of education at the University of California-Riverside, and Daniel G. Solórzano, professor of education at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), found that mispronouncing names in the classroom can have racial undertones, even if unintentional, and might affect the “self-perceptions and worldviews of a child.” Kohli says that “students [whose names were mispronounced] often felt shame, embarrassment and that their name was a burden.” As a result, “they often began to shy away from their language, culture, and families.”

Frank Nuessel, professor of Spanish, Italian, and linguistics at the University of Louisville, and editor of Names: A Journal of Onomastics, says pronouncing students’ names correctly “helps to develop a positive relation with students.” Some names have “consonant combinations that don’t exist in English” that might be difficult to pronounce, Nuessel says, but that doesn’t mean teachers should give up.

As awkward and repetitive as it may be constantly make sure that pronunciations are correct, which might involve asking students to restate their names, the onus is on educators to make the first move when in doubt. And in fact, the process of learning to pronounce a new name, and repeatedly saying it out loud to check with the student if it’s right, is just one of the many ways teachers can commit names and their proper pronunciations to memory.

The “desirable difficulties” in learning how to pronounce names correctly

Robert Bjork, a UCLA psychology professor, told KQED earlier this year that the discomfort of admitting someone’s name is hard to pronounce can aid in recall. This concept, called “desirable difficulties,” posits that the challenges of learning something gives that thing more importance, and carrying out “clarifying exchanges” to get the thing right helps with retention.

KQED also notes that, according to Kohli, when it comes to difficult-to-pronounce names, the key is to ask specific questions to both parent and child. “How would you like me to say your child’s name?” educators should ask parents. “I don’t know how to say your name yet, can you explain it to me?” they should ask their students. “I’m working on learning it, and it’s important to me to say it the way it’s meant to be said, the way your parents say it.”

Then, a teacher should say the name out loud, check with the student if it’s right, and if not, say it again until it is. It can be awkward, but is essential.

The name game, rhyming methods, and word association

Some teachers say learning the meanings behind each student’s name is also helpful. Punita Chhabra Rice, an education researcher and academic advisor with John Hopkins University, has students write essays about the stories behind their names. Christine Yeh, a professor in counseling psychology at the University of San Francisco School of Education, asks students to tell the stories of their names aloud, a process she has  dubbed the “name game.” A former professor of mine used this method, and it not only helped her remember and understand the names of the students in our class, but it also helped me properly pronounce the names of my classmates. (To demonstrate: I am technically named after the Islamic prophet Muhammad’s wife but my mother really just thought “Aisha” sounded pretty; many people with this name pronounce it with three syllables—”eye-ee-sha,” but my name is pronounced with only two syllables, “eye-sha”.)

Another useful method to aid both recall and pronunciation is incorporating word associations or rhymes. Nuessel says he often does this with his own name: he’ll first explain that his last name rhymes with “vessel,” and the “ue” sound is not like that in special counsel Robert Mueller’s surname. “Nuessel” was only spelled with an “ue” because that was how government officials spelled it when his ancestors arrived at Ellis Island, Nuessel says.

Use online resources to pronounce names correctly

There are various online resources available to help teachers (or anyone who is interested) with name pronunciation. The “My Name, My Identity” campaign by California’s Santa Clara County Office of Education is one example. (Santa Clara is also one of the most diverse counties in California, and has the highest median income on the West Coast.) The initiative is about building an inclusive school culture, which begins by pledging to pronounce student’s names correctly. The site includes lesson guides that revolve around name pronunciation, and ideas on how to encourage students to communicate the significance of their names. Jennifer Gonzalez, education blogger and founder of Cult of Pedagogy, an organization that provides multimedia resources for teachers, also recommends Hear Names, a site with short voice recordings made by native speakers pronouncing names from different countries.

Hearing your name pronounced accurately is especially important during the developmental phases of childhood, but it also matters as an adult. Many of the methods used by educators can be applied to various situations, whether that’s meeting someone new in the workplace or at a cocktail party. These practices can even be useful in getting that person who regularly mispronounces your name to finally get it right. Since our names follow us wherever we go, it’s worth taking these lessons out beyond the classroom, and treating other’s names like we would have them treat ours.