commentary reflection Tyson Seburn  

That’s not my name; instead call me Sally.

In the brilliant guest post, Tara Benwell inspired everyone (at least a bunch of us) to continue with my thoughts on making Twitter’s Follow Friday #FF more meaningful.  In this case, it’s all about spending some time reading through your favourite ELT blogs and dusting off some valuable treasure.  You can read more about the specifics of the challenge in this post.

A plethora of PD in blog posts awaited me last night
I spent a few hours last night reading through archived posts from my favourite blogs (and some I’d forgotten about, hidden away in my cluttered bookmarks), many of which from before I’d really gotten to know these educators.  What a treat and great way to spend an evening!  With several now bookmarked, EnglishGateway’s Teacher Blog: Pronouncing Foreign Names – No Need to Mangle, which is about learner/instructor-chosen English names, resonated with me because of my experience with Asian names.  I suggest you click over and read it first before proceeding.  Schema activation required!  Thinking caps on!

My first experience with immersion names, Muriel
My older sister went to a French immersion elementary school (quite common here, at least in the late 70s/early 80s) for the first few years of her education.  Though her name is Julie, she was given the name Muriel for the class.  The thought behind this obviously was to immerse the children in all aspects of French, not only language classes, but also identity.  As I was 6 years younger, I was fascinated by the convention and couldn’t wait to see what my French name would be (~I’d hoped for Etienne or something very un-English sounding).  Sadly, my parents didn’t enrol me there because they felt that learning two languages simultaneously at such a young age had hurt Julie’s English language skills (particularly spelling and grammar).  Of course that’s debatable in another conversation.

My feelings about English names morphed in Seoul
The next time I encountered this renaming idea was in Seoul in 1998 when I first went there to teach English.  Many of the young women and men had either been given or chosen English names that in many cases, sounded similar to their Korean names (e.g. Gene, Sue, etc) or biblical references (e.g. Ruth, Esther, etc–men, not so much).  Those that had the opportunity to either choose their own English names later in life, often stuck to one pattern (e.g. Jimmy, Johnny, Sally, Katie, etc) or a completely random what-were-you-thinking sort (e.g. Milk, Cherry, or my favourite, Somewhat!).  At first, I just related this convention to my previous experience with French immersion names, but it soon was made known to me that my students usually felt that their Korean names were too difficult for foreigners to pronounce.  Ok, a fair enough assumption, I thought.  Not long after that though, I started to learn Korean and believed I was being played for a moron.  Their names weren’t that hard at all.  They contained most of the same sounds we had in English and even actual words familiar to me in other contexts.  How is Mi Young or Su Mi or Hae Yun or Tae Gu hard to pronounce?!? I started to feel insulted every time one of my students suggested their name were too complex for me.  My strategy for proving my linguistic intelligence became simply asking students to say their names once with me repeating–to which Ooohs and Aaahs and clapping followed, indicating how masterful my Korean pronunciation had become.  I began demonstrating that I was capable and eventually ignored their English names altogether unless insistent.  Still, the more new students would utter this ridiculousness about their Korean names, the more insulted I became.  I contemplated, over and over–Why is it they all think this?  Had their primary English teachers (who would have been Korean themselves) pounded that notion into their brains?  Had “My name is too difficult for foreigners to pronounce” been a sentence they’d memorised early in their lives?  My research commenced.

Your students’ original names are

Kim Dong Hyeok, Choi Beom Suk, Park Hye Mun.  These are your students’ names on a list.  Say them out loud.  Did you say /kɪm doʊŋ hyʌk./, /tʃeɪ bʌm suk./ and /pɑːk heɪ mun/?  If you pronounced them they were they were spelled, you’re wrong.  Therefore, they are too difficult and complex for you to say.  You need English names instead…  The problem all along was the romanisation of the Korean alphabet.  In attempts to (over)simplify it into the Roman alphabet with English-speaking pronunciation, spelling rules lost meaning.  Where is ‘eo’ /ʌ/ in English?  Oh right, luncheon.  Where is ‘u’ /u/ in English?  Oh yes, tune.  So if in this little experiment, you actually said Kim D-oh-ng Hyuk, Chay Bum Sook and Pock Hay Moon, (or something reasonably similar) you’re likely much closer to an expert in Korean pronunciation than you think.

With this researched conclusion in mind, I decided that English names used for this pronunciation purposes or to immerse into English-speaking society was rubbish and I would never again help learners choose an English name.  I didn’t want to contribute to either a misinformed opinion of our abilities to copy pronunciation or homogenise one culture onto my students by erasing/replacing their original names.

Fast forward to 2010 and I’m surrounded by Chinese learners
Years later, I now teach classes dominant with Chinese names.  90% of them also have English names before I meet them.  The hair on the back of my neck still goes up whenever I say their English names, but admittedly, their Chinese names look intimidating with all the Xs, Qs and Tzs.  It begs the question–is this just a matter of romanisation again?  Are their names equally “difficult”?  I’m thinking yes.  Perhaps checking out the links provided on EnglishGateway’s post could help in that regard.

Names and critical thinking applications for class
How does this translate into lesson?  You might wonder.  Often when the IPA comes up in a pronunciation focus, I suggest students try writing their names using the IPA that they think matches the original pronunciation best and I give it a go.  If I’m way off, I suggest rethinking their choice.   If I’m close, I congratulate them and pass them on to the next task:  connect the pronunciation of your name to words you know in English.  How can you spell your name using those conventions?  Your goal is to make it as simple as possible for someone with no experience of your language to say it correctly.  Critical thinking skills – check!

On a final note, my lil foible
Amidst my passion about this topic and this post, I realised that I can’t find EnglishGateway or any of its staff on Twitter.  Shame.  So I guess you’ll just have to be introduced to their blog for now.  Happy name-calling!

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[…] Oprea: a #FF Spinoff challenge) | suggested by Valeria Benevolo Franca #FF EnglishGateway blog (That’s not my name: instead, call me Sally) | suggested by Tyson Seburn #FF @vbenevolofranca (From the Archives: Valéria’s Post on The […]


Hi Tyson,
What a great post! This was something I wondered about at summer school, where last year we had 20 Korean students and 40 Chinese. One of the main problems was that the group leaders knew them by their Korean/Chinese names, and we were told their English ones, so when we were asked “How is X doing in class?” we could never say because neither of us knew the corresponding name. One of the summer school teachers had lived in Korea for a few years and used all their Korean names. I wish I could have done the same, but I was never given the time or the chance to do so… Next time though!
On another note, the habit of students to Anglicise their names really annoys me in other contexts to. In Paraguay, my friend Guillermo insisted on being called William – those two names have completely different connotations for me, and I could never reconcile the two. Here (in the Czech Republic) Jana becomes Jane (rather than Jaaana as many southern Brits pronounce it), Karel becomes Charlie or Charles (see Guillermo above) and Eva becomes Eve.
This loss of identity really surprised me, until I realised I had kind of done it myself. I was Sandra (my given name) until I left school, then changed to Sandy on my gap year. Now it really annoys me when people call me Saaaandra, because that isn’t my name (it’s S/ae/ndra!). Instead I now have a problem with students calling me Sunday when they first meet me!
Not sure what I was trying to say there…but thanks for the post anyway!

Naomi Epstein

Thanks for describing so vividly different aspects of a situation I’m totally unfamiliar with! Fascinating! The only issue I have ever had with names has had to do with surnames of some children whose families immigrated from the former Soviet Union. With more than 9 or 10 letter in their surnames, they have begged to be excused from writing their surnames in Enlgish on their assignments!

Anna Varna

I am familiar with the situation you describe. When I first meet students (in our state school) who have already taken a year or two of private lessons, I am usually confronted with the situations that their names have been anglicised. I was initially very annoyed by it and I couldn’t understand why they (the private school teachers) would let the children keep their own names and had to rename all the kids to Johnnys and Pennys and Bessies.
But what I realised lately is that kids like it, it gives them something like a false identity, the English identity, something that allow them to immerse into the lesson easier. IT’s like a stage name.
So now, I let them have a choice: “What do you want to be called dear?” If my little Panayiotas want to be called Penny then, so be it!

Anna Varna

I know what you mean, that’s why I was getting so irritated initially. It was like they didn’t like their Greek identity. But as you say with little kids it’s a bit different because everything becomes more theatrical in class.


Fascinating! As I grew up in a bilingual setting (Wales, speaking both English and Welsh at home and at school) – I had two versions of my name – the way it’s pronounced in Welsh (the vowels are open the r slightly rolled) and the way it’s pronounced in English – think of Kerry (the vowels slightly more closed, the r not rolled at all). Both were my name – I had no preference over one or the other – I didn’t feel my name was being mangled. When I worked in Italy I got a new version – still the same name, still very recognisable as such, but with the added Italian intonation. In France my name changed again (I think this may be my favourite version) with the stress at the end. In Spain I’ve noticed that a lot of people avoid using my name altogether ‘cos they think it’s difficult. In class on the first day I always write my name on the board as it’s spelled and a rough phonemic transcription next to it. I leave it on the board. It works – with the added magic of a Spanish or Japanese or Chinese or Hungarian or whatever take on the phonemes. I also make a thing of writing and pronouncing all the students’ names – writing them on the board – adding a stress pattern – or key vowel or consonant sound or whatever. The names stay on the board for the rest of the class. It helps everyone to learn everyone else’s name. It also underlines from day one the importance of the play between individual sounds and stress patterns in learning pronunciation. I think it also shows respect for each student’s individual identity. We usually spend some time talking about the names, where they come from, if they’re shared by other family members, if their surnames are local or not (in Spain surnames often show the movement of families from poor rural areas in search of work – or in the case of some students recently of fathers falling in love while doing their military service). Names are important. Loved the original post. Loved this post too. Thanks, Ty!

Tara Benwell

Excellent post! And thanks for a link to the original too. It’s a really interesting topic. On MyEC I always try to convince English learners to record their name on Vocaroo or Audio boo or even in a webcam message. Even if I’m not teaching them in a class, I want to know how to pronounce their names. Some of them use fake names and I never know whether it’s because they want to remain anonymous (they probably use MyEC at work) or because they want to have an English name. I wonder if it’s easier when the teacher has a difficult name to pronounce? I always remind students that my name is pronounced Terra like the earth, but that I had many teachers who called me Tahra (which drove me crazy as a kid).
Thanks again for giving me the opportunity to be your first guest blogger. It was a really fun Friday!

Tara Benwell

You’re right, they are “user names” but some do use their real names (or even nicknames) and I want to be able to pronounce them properly. One of our members recently wrote on this topic:


Hi Tara – I guess I may have fallen foul of the Tahra trap – really sorry! I’m glad I know now … hope to see you again face to face soon so I can get it right 😉

Tara Benwell

Ha-it drove me crazy as a kid because I didn’t understand that other “Tara’s” actually used that pronunciation. It doesn’t really phase me anymore. Besides, I called you “Serri” in my mind for many months! (Probably because I’m used to “Kerry” -my mom’s name)

Tara Benwell

Speaking of names…Alex Case just wrote an interesting article called “Teaching Names” : (Some good ideas here)

Tara Benwell

I guess he wasn’t done…today there is a follow up to his article called: “Names in the English Classroom”. Hope it’s okay that I share these here. I think these articles are very useful and they add to the discussion. Cheers.

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