When I was a sophomore in high school, a new student moved into our district from the Philippines. This student knew little English and was faced with the huge task of learning a new language via immersion. That’s not to say he knew nothing. Because he did know something very important: his name. His peers, however, had one new word to learn but failed miserably. So much so that he eventually started to respond to any near-pronunciation of his name. Even at that time, I thought to myself, What a tragedy. Straight up Romeo and Juliet tragedy.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Am I being dramatic? I don’t think so. The mispronunciation of names happens often to our students of color and students learning English as a second language. And it’s implications are much larger than you may think.
Why was it such a tragedy? What a question to unload. I’ll do my best.
Parents labor over picking the perfect name for a child, sometimes waiting a few days after the birth so they can get the name just right. It’s highly symbolic. It’s identification. Ignoring their identity is to “render them (their family, their history, their culture) invisible.”
Mispronunciation of a name is often only the first slight that these students receive on their education journey. It sets the stage for their future connection to school and to education. Students of color are already at a disadvantage when you consider their connection to school: rarely do they see themselves reflected in the teachers and administration they see everyday. Mispronouncing their names affirms the message, “You don’t belong here.”
If we want equity for all students, we must stop mispronouncing and Anglicizing their names. This means we need to take a few extra minutes to get the pronunciations down. We need to stop asking people to choose an “American” name (seriously, I’m not going to call you GREG if your name is JaeWon). We must put the emphasis on the right syllables, recognize how an accent will impact the pronunciation of a name, and pronounce that soft C instead of the hard C even if it feels unnatural to us at first. And we must teach our students not to accept the mispronunciation of their name, either. As we know, Juliet was tragically wrong in the end.
To read more about how mispronouncing names and other racial microaggressions impact learning, read this article.
To see a list of picture books about the importance of a name, see this Goodreads list (my favorites are The Name Jar and My Name is Yoon).
For tips and resources on how to pronounce students’ names correctly, visit this quick guide put together by EdWeek.
For more information and resources, please visit My Name, My Identity.