Names Matter

DISCLAIMER: I don’t mean in any way to disrespect or undermine trans people. In such cases, the social name is the one that should be used. For the purpose of the text I used expressions like real, given or birth name as opposed to anglicised, translated, English or western names adopted by some speakers in response to racial microaggressions. What I mean is the name the person feels comfortable being referred to as. The name they "go home to”. Is there a better way to put it? I would love to hear from you.

“My name is Seo-yun, but you can call me Sunny if you want”, said a classmate.

It was 2009. I was in Canada and 16-year-old me noticed some people had more than one name. And I am not talking about “Maria Claras” or “Marc Anthonys”. I asked Sunny if that was her nickname and that was the first time I came across the fact that some people adopt anglicised (or “more Western”) names. I must admit I was a bit relieved back then, this habit of theirs would come in handy. It was my first time spending that much time abroad and those were the first non-Latinx I had ever met. It was convenient to say their original, given names were simply too different and too difficult for me, and they seemed used to people referring to them as their chosen, English name. At that time I wished I could have chosen my own name! So I would call “Seo-yun” “Sunny” and “Li Na” “Anna” and I would accept people’s made up English names without question. 10 years later, I look back and what I wish is that I had made the effort to learn and correctly pronounce their real names.

Another thing you need to know about me is that my name is Julia and I am Brazilian. If you speak Portuguese, you probably know that this J is pronounced /ʒ/, as the letter s in television. For quite some time, though, I would introduce myself as /ˈʤuːlɪə/ on a series of occasions: in conferences, in the classroom and when speaking to English native speakers, to name a few. /ʤ/ulia became a persona. She was the part of me that spoke English, the teacher, the presenter. But I was /ʒ/ulia still, I would go home and people would pronounce my name as it was familiar to me. The “right” way.

Things changed when I moved to Germany. /ʤ/ulia, the teacher, was now taking the CELTA and teaching non-Portuguese speakers for the first time. /ʤ/ulia was happy, professionally fulfilled, she was learning a new language and making new friends. But I would get off work and… Well, I don't know if you know, but the letter J is attached to a yet another phoneme in German. So, in Berlin, people would call me /'yuːljɐ/. There was no comforting /ʒ/ waiting for me at home. At some point I noticed I wasn't feeling myself. I am not /y/ulia, nor have I any intention of becoming her! A simple sound made me reflect on how my classmates from Vancouver must have felt and on my role as a teacher in preventing people from not feeling themselves.

The way I see it, this name changing situation is likely to occur when a) you move to a country whose language is not your mother tongue and b) learning a second or foreign language (regardless of where you are - in your country of birth or studying abroad). It could be a simple transformation or a translation, /ʒ/ulia becoming /ʤ/ulia or Maria becoming Mary, for example, or of a complete change of names, Seo-yun becoming Sunny, for example. The way some psychologists and teachers see it (with what I personally agree), this habit can be harmful and should be avoided.

Wait! If you think I might be overreacting, I invite you to hear me out (or better, read me out): I strongly believe all our interactions should be conducted with respect, empathy and consent. So no, I neither will nor would ever refer to student A as B against their will, just because B is what is shown on their ID or because that’s the “correct” way of pronouncing it in student's L1, and I’m not saying you should. On the other hand, I’m not one to think us teachers should just grant every student's wish just because they like something or want things in a certain way.

In my experience in the classroom I’ve had many Paulos that wanted to be called Paul, and I did call them that, I respected their wishes. Who am I to deny them the possibility of making their own persona up? But I think we should acknowledge their privilege and so should they, for it is a privilege to have an easily anglicising name. It is a privilege to get to choose how you will be addressed, especially considering it is not a choice for many who suffer from racism.

No, forced re-naming practices don’t exist anymore, but many will agree that non-white names are still unwelcomingly inconvenient. Not only do some feel entitled to explicitly tell people of color (PoCs) they should adopt “easier to pronounce” names but also PoCs all over the world have to deal with daily comments and/or jokes regarding their skin complexion, their accents, the expression of their identities and, believe it or not, their names. And as Kholi and Solórzano stated so well in Teachers, please learn our names!, “these incidents are racial microaggressions – subtle insults that, as a form of racism, support a racial and cultural hierarchy of minority inferiority. Furthermore, enduring these subtle experiences with racism can have a lasting impact on the self-perceptions and worldviews of a child.”

Having that in mind, should we really be the ones translating our students’ names without it being requested? Or commenting on how difficult to pronounce or different they may be? Should we rename a student or make up a nickname for them? I don’t think so! Instead, what we can do is ask them how they would like to be referred to as, how they would like us to pronounce their names.

We may still find some Felipes that want to be Phillip and some Adjoas that identify themselves better as Kelly. Our role here is to make sure they know they have a choice and that we are willing to learn and use their real names if they want us to. Our role here is (as it has always been) to make sure all students feel safe, visible, valued and celebrated.

If you would like to read more about this, I recommend the following texts:

  • Teachers, please learn our names: racial microagressions in the K-12 classroom, by Rita Kholi and Daniel G. Solórzano

  • https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/09/22/the-soft-bigotry-of-having-to-change-your-name-because-somehow-tchaikovksy-is-easier/

  • https://www.educationworld.com/a_lesson/foreign-language-class-student-names.shtml

Julia Lima (pronouns: she/her) is a passionate English teacher and a language enthusiast that likes sunny autumn days, sitting at cafés and writing her thoughts down to organise them.

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