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What’s in a Name?

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 09, 2007 1 min read
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If a child has the name Juan Carlos Hernandez Gonzalez, how should a school record that student’s name in its databases? What if the name is Abdul Rahman bin Tariq bin Khalid Al-Alawi? A report prepared by the Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia for the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences gives some answers to these questions. It’s called “Registering Students From Language Backgrounds Other than English.”

The report makes a point that I had never thought of, that if schools don’t develop consistent rules for how students’ names from various cultures are recorded, a child’s academic history can easily be lost. Establishing those rules requires some knowledge of naming customs in different cultures. The report gives insight into names from eight cultures: Arabic, Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Spanish, Urdu, and Vietnamese.

It’s useful to know, for example, that in the name Juan Carlos Hernandez Gonzalez the name Hernandez is the family name of the child’s father and Gonzalez is the family name of the child’s mother. And in the case of Abdul Rahman bin Tariq bin Khalid Al-Alawi, it’s helpful for a school to know that bin translates to English as “son of.”

Getting the names right for people of cultures other than my own has been a big challenge for me at times. For a story about Mexican schools, I debated whether to include people’s double last names. I ended up doing so the first time I mentioned someone in an article, but dropped the second last name on second reference. When writing about the growth of Muslim schools in the United States, I learned about different ways that Mohammed can be spelled: Mohammed, Mohamed, Muhamed, Muhammad, and Imhemed.

Frankly, I’m glad I don’t have to develop rules for a database that includes English-language learners because it sounds like a tedious task. But if it’s your job to do so, the Institute of Education Sciences report might be a big help.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.