Corrected: An earlier version of this story misidentified the school system Keshav Malani attended in California. He was enrolled in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District.
After immigrating to the United States from India as an 11-year-old, Keshav Malani’s teachers routinely mispronounced his name, but he was accustomed to not correcting them due to an unspoken tradition in Indian schools.
However, he soon became frustrated with the repeated mispronunciation as he navigated through K-12 education in California’s San Ramon Valley Unified School District.
As one of four Indian students in his high school, Malani’s teachers and administrators only realized they had been mispronouncing his name when a teacher overhead him speaking about the correct pronunciation with a classmate.
While teachers and other students were typically receptive to the correct pronunciation, Malani, now an adult with his own children, said the many incorrect variations of his name that he’s heard through the years took their toll. Once, to his surprise, he was addressed as “Charlotte.” (His first name is pronounced kay-SHAV.)
“I was simply done with people mispronouncing my name and thought there has to be a way I can help people learn the correct pronunciation of my name,” Malani said.
With the start of school approaching, many students—especially students of color and students from immigrant families—may find themselves in Malani’s shoes on the first day of classes. They may not want to correct teachers or classmates on the proper pronunciation of their names, potentially resigning themselves to an entire school year of being called a name other than their given one.
The constant mispronunciation not only makes school more stressful, it can send a message that teachers aren’t making the effort to respect their identity, culture, and heritage. But it’s a problem teachers can fix easily, according to a student and experts who spoke with Education Week.
Taking a pledge to respect proper pronunciation
In Santa Clara County, Calif., home to San Jose, thousands of students and teachers have taken a pledge to respect the names and identities of the county’s students, who speak more than 60 languages.
The pledge is part of the “My Name, My Identity” initiative, which was launched in 2016 and is the result of a partnership between the Santa Clara County Office of Education and the National Association of Bilingual Education.
Those who sign the pledge commit to showing respect to individuals and their identities by properly pronouncing their names, serving as a model to others, spreading the message about the importance of proper name pronunciation, inspiring people to share their name stories via social media, and encouraging everyone to be proud of who they are.
Since its inception, the initiative has amassed more than 11,000 pledges, and a number of county school districts have signed on as supporters.
“When we empower our students’ voices and honor the language and cultural assets that they bring to schools, we will actualize our vision of creating an inclusive and respectful learning environment,” said Kelly Wylie, the director of the public affairs department for the Santa Clara County Office of Education.
Ahead of the first day of school, Ella Yi Ling Cheng, a rising 8th grader in Sunnyvale, Calif.—one of the school districts that has committed to the “My Name, My Identity” pledge—wants teachers to be proactive about correctly pronouncing students’ names.
She suggests that they allow students to say their own names during the first day’s roll call, or have them write their names phonetically so teachers can master proper pronunciation on the first try.
Ella’s mother, Cindy Hsing-Li Liu, said her daughter’s name reflects two cultures, with an American first name and Chinese middle name.
“Because she was born here in the U.S., we wanted to give her an American name that could be pronounced easily,” Liu said. “We still, from a cultural perspective, wanted to ... keep the tradition of having a Chinese name.”
Ella’s last name, Cheng, has been Americanized to make it easier to pronounce.
“Even though her last name [is] Cheng, in Chinese it sounds totally different than Cheng, but Cheng is so much easier than trying to explain the correct [Chinese] pronunciation,” said Liu.
Ella is understanding when teachers of different backgrounds pronounce her middle or last name, or her classmates’ names, incorrectly on the first few tries. But it can get annoying.
“I want teachers to be prepared for hard names, to pronounce and try their best,” Ella said.
Her message for other students whose names are frequently mispronounced? “It doesn’t mean your name is wrong or anything, it just means your name is special,” she said.
Mispronunciation can be mentally distressing
Rehman Abdulrehman, a research professor at the University of Manitoba and a child psychologist, sees how name mispronunciation causes mental distress in his young patients, especially those of color.
“This is an ongoing issue in many cultural communities and communities of color,” said Abdulrehman. “But it is not what you see first. It is part of a larger rejection of cultural and ethnic identity, where many children become ashamed of many aspects of their identity, and prefer to act and be more white.”
Abdulrehman constructed his own bias testing tool and collected data from more than 6,000 people. He found that many people have inherent biases toward people of color, regarding them as “foreign.” That applies to people of color who participated in the testing, too, he said.
“This would apply to names as well, in my opinion,” he said.
Rita Kohli, a professor in the school of education at University of California, Riverside, said that constant name pronunciation is a form of discrimination and racism that’s “embedded in the mundane interactions of our everyday world.”
Both researchers encourage teachers to take responsibility for correctly pronouncing their students’ names.
Teachers should come to class prepared, Kohli said. Ahead of the first day this fall, teachers should look over their rosters and Google pronunciations if they are unfamiliar with a name, she said. In addition, teachers should let students know that they are open to corrections when first pronouncing their names.
Abdulrehman said educators need to put in the effort to properly pronounce their students’ names even before meeting them.
“When educators model this for their students, they model not just initiative and respect, but also the development of a culture where all are treated equally and there isn’t a complacency toward xenophobia and racism. It is important to realize that the student themselves may have internalized the anglicized pronunciation,” he said.
Turning mispronunciation into motivation
Malani, who immigrated to the United States from India as an 11-year-old, turned his frustration with mispronunciation into motivation for a business idea—a service called NameDrop that allows people to share recordings of their name pronunciations in their email signatures and across social media platforms.
While most wanted to pronounce Malani’s name correctly, it was exhausting to always correct people or brace for a mispronunciation. So, he decided to write the code that would one day become NameDrop.
“I built simple HTML pages for me and a few others, then a few more asked for one, and I had to keep making manual changes to HTML pages as I’d improve or fix bugs,” he said. “More people kept asking, so I decided to convert it into a service.”
Malani recognizes the value of having a unique name, but he also appreciates when people try to properly pronounce it.
“People still tell me that they practice my name multiple times before getting on [a] call with me,” he said. “It means a lot even if they don’t get my name perfect.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 16, 2023 edition of Education Week as Why Pronouncing Student Names Correctly Matters, And How to Get Them Right