5 Dec 2012

An Insue by any other name

An ESL student phenomenon that has never ceased to surprise, dismay, and sometimes amuse me over the years is the student acquisition of the "English Name". 

It probably has its roots in the early communicative and the "when-you-walk-through-this-door-your-every-thought-breath-utterance-will-be-English" approaches

but sometimes it smacks of colonialism or something Saidian & "other"-associated. Whatever its beginnings, on some level, for better or for worse, it irks me. 

My class roster is a naturally changeable beast, typically from semester to semester and program to program, but also with the ebb and flow of immigration waves. When I first starting teaching more than 15 years ago, 90% of my adult ESL students were Japanese; now, in my western Canadian classroom, Saudi and Chinese students battle for top billing. I am, of course, thrilled to engage with any culture or language group. However, perhaps not every language group would say the same for me. 

Full disclosure: I S-U-C-K at pronouncing some of my students' names. My Chinese pronunciation in particular is shockingly mutilative. (hundreds of my former students are furiously nodding their heads up and down right now)

In the early days, I never questioned the Kings, Dragons, Roses, Jets, Felicias, Chastitys, Moons, or Suns but over the last few years I've made a point of trying to get to the origins of "the English name". Sometimes I'm told that their English teacher back home "assigned" it, or that it sounds like their 'real' name, or that it's their Christian name, 

(totally get it, Sister Rosa; one half of my Korean nun-pair one fabulous year. p.s. was sweating that dating & marriage unit until you told me you'd tried marijuana.)

or that they just wanted to switch it up in a new country. Sometimes it's obvious why when they cringe as I audibly butcher their names during the first roll call

But let me say this: your 'real' name is YOU! I want to know that you and what that name means in your language and what it meant to your parents and what you like or don't like about it. I want you to teach me and your classmates how to say it properly. 

I hate when a classmate of yours quietly asks me your name 8 weeks into the semester when I'm partnering you together for an activity. 

I want to hear your name in our classroom because I believe it makes you heard and seen in this new place and this new language in which you have so bravely chosen to learn, love, and succeed. 

So, my fellow educators and learners, let's make sure we build our classroom community from the ground up, starting with learning each other's names inside and out. Name collages? Name games? Red rover, red rover, I call Zhi Qiang over? Love to hear what you do to celebrate names in the classroom.

This is dedicated to Insue and to Jesse (which sounds nothing like Dae Kyeong, does it?)

Good name-changing advice from 'Philip "do-not-be-creative" Guo': How to choose an English name

Aw, hell, pick a random name with BarryfunEnglish: English Name Maker

Or ask yourself those deep name-changing questions @ English Gateway: What's In A Name?


  1. Your passion and reflection as a committed ESL teacher comes through in this blog post. Your students are lucky that you not only allow them, but actually want them, to bring their authentic self into the classroom.

    Allow me, however, to offer another perspective. When my grandfather and father moved to the United States, they both decided to change their names to better fit the new surroundings. Uriah might be a beautiful Hebrew name, but Roy - as in Roy Rogers - certainly sounded more American. My grandfather wanted to be "reborn" and become an American. Likewise, many students enjoy discovering a different side of themselves while studying in Canada or abroad and using a new name in a new language sometimes opens up new psychological space. Sometimes is the key word here. This last semester,for instance, I had students who chose the following English names: Sky, Psyche, Roger, and Tiffany. If a student asks me to call them an "English" name, who am I to say no?
    As so often, case by case seems to better fit my ethos than adopting a single one size fits all approach.

    1. Eric, as always, I am grateful for your thoughtful & thorough reflections! I think your grandfather's story is a common one, and a motivation worthy of honouring.

      I totally agree that each student should do whatever he or she feels most comfortable doing and when I suggest we celebrate and learn each other's names, I also mean the "English Name" if that is the one put forward.

      A part of me also feels that the "English Name" lets us teachers and other classmates off the hook at little and I can't help adding, in defense of my bad pronunication, that there might be something endearing about someone pronouncing your name a little bit differently than it was intended. After all, my Korean students, when they finally stop calling me "teacher", have been calling me "Pee" instead of "Fi(fee)" for years!

      Great to hear from you, Eric, and hope our passionate, thought-expanding exchanges continue for a long time.