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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Pronouncing Students’ Names Correctly Should Be a Big Deal

By Punita Chhabra Rice — November 15, 2017 6 min read
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Good teachers would never want to do anything that makes a student feel ashamed or embarrassed. They would never want to do anything that leads students to distance themselves from their backgrounds. But if teachers don’t put in the necessary effort to pronounce students’ names correctly, that might be exactly what they are doing.

I come from a teaching background myself, so I understand the struggle. I taught social studies and English to about 800 diverse 7th graders for five years, so I know the struggle of having to learn, memorize, and correctly pronounce a lot of names (and I’ve made my fair share of mistakes). I recognize how arduous of a task it can be to get names right every time.

But pronunciation matters. Research has found that students’ socioemotional well-being and worldview can be negatively impacted by teachers’ failure to pronounce their names properly, and can even lead students to shy away from their own cultures and families.

This is familiar territory for many teachers. Educator Jennifer Gonzalez, the creator of the website Cult of Pedagogy, puts it best: “Mutilating someone’s name is a tiny act of bigotry.” And Adam Levine-Peres, a teacher who created the online series “Project Bronx,” suggests that mispronouncing a student’s name fails to establish an environment of trust, sends the message that perseverance is not important, and communicates disrespect.

Even the National Education Association reports that minimizing the significance of getting a name right is a kind of microaggression—an everyday act of discrimination.

Speaking From Personal Experience

I am South Asian American and spent over a decade mispronouncing my name for my own teachers to make it easier for them to say. My name is pronounced Pu-nee-tha; but for years, I said “Puh-nee-da.” I’m not alone in doing this; a lot of South Asian Americans I know offer an Americanized pronunciation of their names (Unn-jal-ee goes by “Anne-julie”), if not another name entirely (Sanket goes by “Prasad”). In spite of offering teachers what I imagined was an easier version of my name, most still pronounced it wrong (“Poo-needa?” “Paw-needa?”).

In fact, my own frustrating experiences informed the work I’m doing now: I founded an outreach organization to improve South Asian American students’ experiences in schools. When I spoke with South Asian American students about their experiences, many indicated in interviews that they didn’t feel teachers understood them or their cultures or knew how to say their names. And the importance of pronunciation goes beyond any one background or culture—it’s important for all students, no matter where they’re from.

Knowing that this issue is widespread and cuts deep doesn’t necessarily make the pronunciation task for teachers any easier. So what’s a teacher to do during preservice week, when she or he is handed a full roster of difficult-to-pronounce names—especially when they may be responsible for over 100 students?

I created a guide—thanks to my own research and experiences (and to Twitter crowdsourcing from fellow South Asian Americans and educators serving diverse populations)—with tips to help educators develop strategies for pronouncing the many diverse names they are expected to learn every year.

Practice before day one. If there are names that already look like they might be a challenge for you, try to learn how to pronounce them before you even meet students. I recommend the Pronounce Names website (which now offers an Android app) or Voice of America’s pronunciation guide to become familiar with the names of the students you will interact with on a daily basis.

Get smart. If it’s more comfortable, you can put your roster of names on an overhead projector or smartboard for the whole class to see and have each student pronounce their names for you. Practice saying them in response. Then, write them out phonetically on your own copy for future reference.

Make it private. You can privately ask students who use a Westernized pronunciation if they prefer to go by a pronunciation that their own families might use. Keep in mind, however, that many students aren’t offering the pronunciation for your benefit, but for their own comfort (it’s complicated!), so listen carefully to what they prefer. For those students who have had their own names repeatedly mispronounced, it can become preferable to offer a more pronounceable version by default—in which case, it is that much more critical to make your best effort to say it correctly.

Try a call-and-response name game. Have each student pronounce their own names as you go down the roster while other students repeat the name back (until everyone’s got it). Put whatever spin on this you’d like, but don’t set the game up so that students whose names somehow look more complicated or foreign are the only ones who have to participate.

Celebrate identities. Think about ways to celebrate your students’ names. The Santa Clara County Office of Education in San Jose, Calif., started the My Name, My Identity campaign with the mission of improving teachers’ pronunciation of student names, which, as the office states, is key for “healthy social, psychological, and educational outcomes.”

In my own social studies classes, I’ve asked students to create Coats of Arms that represent their names, family traditions, and cultural backgrounds as part of a lesson related to the Middle Ages and heraldry, and by creating a flag with symbols that represent their backgrounds during lessons related to cultures of the world. In my English classes, I’ve had students write personal essays that delve into the meaning or stories of their names at the beginning of the year.

Expand your horizons. Become familiar with common sounds and names from different cultures. This can happen naturally by purposefully consuming more diverse literature and media. In an effort to support teachers in diversifying the book lists in their own classrooms, ISAASE launched the Brown Books Project. Increasing exposure to students’ diverse experiences, cultures, and voices helps them become culturally proficient.

Be respectful and continue fine-tuning. There are three types of name-mispronouncers, according to Gonzalez: 1) those who fumble over the names, seem apologetic, and feel at fault for mispronouncing, but ultimately still fail to get the name right; 2) those who assume their own pronunciation is correct or barge ahead with their own version even after being corrected; and 3) those who recognize that getting a name correct will require effort and continue to fine-tune their pronunciation of a name as time goes on. The third group is the one you want to be in. There are a variety of complicated Anglo names that we as a collective society have figured out how to say properly (like former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and actors Renée Zellweger and Zach Galifianakis). There is no excuse not to try.

Learn from your mistakes. Mistakes are acceptable, and they will happen. The important thing is to make an effort to learn from them. As any dedicated teacher knows, good teaching is not about doing everything perfectly, but about constantly striving to improve our own pedagogy and compassion for our students.

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