Let me introduce myself…

I’ve written before about my work with students from overseas, and the way in which Asian students have a tendency to adopt “western” names.  Although it makes my life easier, I have mixed feelings about this.  Many Anglophones rely upon the fact that English is a universally accepted language to make not effort to learn another language, or even to reach for the phrase book when travelling abroad.  Deplorable as this may be, not being willing to try to pronounce another’s name seems to be just rude.

It isn’t just Asians who encounter this problem – at first sight many Polish surnames seem to contain more consonants than the tongue can handle, yet by taking the time to ask every Pole I meet how to pronounce their name, any fears have been dispelled.  I have some way to go with Sri Lankan names yet though!

The name of course is part of our identity, and in expecting others to change their names we meddle with who they are.  I am adopted, so the name I have used for the last 54 years was not the one given to me at birth.  I still remember how alien my “birth name” seemed when I first viewed my birth certificate.  I’m a Paul, not an Ian.  Also I use my middle name, because the first name given to me by my adoptive parents was also my father’s and grandfather’s first name, so Paul became the name of choice to avoid confusion.  The other name is meaningless to me.  Perhaps this explains my sensitivity to the name changes that others take on.

An article that I read in the Korean Times however suggested that the practice is perhaps not undertaken reluctantly.  Adopting a Western name gives many a feeling of being progressive and global, and so become like nick names, representing another facet of an individual’s personality.  We also forget that there a Christian communities around the world, and so many are actually christened with these names.  A hangover from the cultural imperialism of European missionaries, and one which is not exclusive to Asia as we shall see.

Many of the students this week heralded from Lyon, and it is unusual for us to have more than one or two French students on the course.  It seemed appropriate (though incorrect in terms of gender) that one of the Vietnamese students should have adopted the name Bon.  Bonne n’est pas?  Three letters though; couldn’t be simpler.  However that is also true of her Vietnamese name Thi (pronounced Tea, and meaning poem).


It is also probably another sign of my cultural ignorance that I found myself saying “I love African accents” this weekend too.  I wouldn’t say; “I love European accents”, I’d say German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish (or as my female colleagues seemed to prefer this weekend: French).  However to my ear, which has been attuned to a few words of Kiswahili, but certainly no Yoruba or Setswana and yet regardless of the hundreds of miles that separate the nations I couldn’t tell distinguish a Tanzanian speaker of English from a Nigerian or Botswanan.

Anyway the bearer of the accent was Nigerian, with a fine Yoruba name.  I liked the catch lights in her eyes as much as the tones from her mouth so she agreed to be photographed too.  She has another name apart from the Yoruba.  This is Clara.APW_8587-Edit


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Nominally British?

The British journalist Sangita Myska recently produced a programme about British attitudes to “foreign” names, based on her own experiences and those of other prominent Brits who can trace their roots to other cultures.

The inability of many of us to cope with these less common names can make even the most straight forward of tasks a challenge, and in the programme there are recordings of attempts she makes to book a table at different restaurants.  “Did you say Francesca?” being one response to her name.  Whilst it is understandable that anyone may have difficulty in pronouncing or understanding a name of word that they have never encountered before, it is the accompanying attitude that concerns.  A name is part of our identity and something to be treated with respect surely, yet the attitude often seems to be that “It’s your fault for having a difficult name.”

And then there are the prejudices that names can trigger.  An engineering company in Birmingham is run by a Richard Brown.  Nothing out of the ordinary there, until you discover that Richard is actually Shahid Iqbal, a Muslim who found that applying for jobs in his real name led rejections, yet doors were opened to the same applicant when he adopted a more Anglicised approach.  He continues to use Richard Brown now when approaching new clients as it gets him past initial barriers to the point where he can meet clients and promote his company.

While he is happy to take this approach, many others feel very uncomfortable at having to “abandon” their identity to make it easier for the ignorant.  I’m not sure which is the answer.  Over the last decade I have worked with hundreds of overseas students, many from South East Asia, who find it easier to adopt Western Names when in this country rather than put up with the mangled consonants that result from our attempts to pronounce their Chinese, Vietnamese or Malaysian equivalents.

I feel bad at not taking the time to correct this, but in a room of 10 students with tight timescales to work to I would quickly find myself behind schedule if I learnt every name with its correct pronunciation, only to have to begin again later in the day when we change the team compositions.  So when these students arrive armed with names like Winnie, Eric, Tim, Celia, Tommy and so on I’m happy to use them.  Interesting that so many of the names chosen, although very traditional, would probably not be used very often by English speakers today.

Today’s portrait is of one of my colleagues who has also delivered this training for a number of years and whose name is Janet.  At least that’s what I’ve always called her…