By Erin Frankel, author of the Weird series.
Someone asked me recently if I liked my name. “Yes,” I replied without thinking twice. I’ve always liked my name: Erin. Having married a Spaniard and lived in Spain for almost two decades, I even grew to like my name when spoken with the exotic flare of Spanish pronunciation. Anyone who has ever tried to be understood in another language knows that explaining how to say your name correctly can get tiring. Equipped with the knowledge that most people are indeed trying their hardest to get your name right, you learn to gracefully let the mispronunciation slide.
While this may be how adults handle their own hard-to-pronounce names, for kids, it is different. My daughters have a Spanish last name: Cadahia. Years ago, when they walked onstage to receive their first American trophies, the woman with the microphone and the notecard took a long, awkward pause as she stared perplexed by the name before her. “I’m not even going to attempt this one,” she blurted out. I remember my girls’ faces that day when the applause they expected for a job well done quickly turned to chuckles from the audience. They got the award for most difficult name to pronounce.
In honor of National Bullying Prevention month, I have been thinking about these memories and recalling the children from my own childhood who were targets of taunting because their names were difficult to pronounce. I have imagined how nervous they must have felt when it came time for the teacher to pronounce their names or when they had to say their names. I have also been thinking about my own experience as a college ESL teacher and the challenges I have faced when the microphone is in my own hand.
As the number of English Language Learners (ELLs) continues to grow dramatically, so does the number of educators who face these challenges. Over the last decade, there has been a 60 percent increase in the number of K–12 ELLs, which makes it the fastest-growing student population in the nation. With so many students coming from linguistically diverse backgrounds, teachers will be faced with increasingly diverse class rosters. When it comes to names, following some simple tips can help ensure that students feel included and respected.
Respect the Student’s Preference
Do not assign students names that you think are easier to pronounce. Names are personal, and nicknames should be based on what students and parents prefer. Some students may prefer to be called a nickname or to adopt an “American” name, but this decision should come from the parent or student, not from the teacher.
Elementary and middle school ESL specialist Dr. Maggie Edmonds explains that at her school, “We never ask for an American name to make it easy.” She points out that while she encourages parents to have their children go by their given names, some parents and students view adopting an “American” name as one of the fun parts of coming to study in the United States. Unfortunately, in some cases, a student’s preference may stem from a negative experience with the mispronunciation of his or her name. When in doubt, remember that ESL staff at your school or in your district can often provide additional support.
At the beginning of the year while students are working quietly on a task, I go from desk to desk with my seating chart. I ask each student to tell me his or her preferred name. If I have difficulty with a name, I ask the student to say the name slowly and take notes on my roster to help me with the pronunciation the next time around. This lets students know that their names are respected and shows that you want to get their names right. With so many language application tools at our fingertips, it is easier than ever to familiarize ourselves with student names ahead of time. Tools range from pronunciation help to a broader understanding of cultural naming traditions and insights.
Don’t Single Out Names
Avoid making comments such as, “Oh, I’m going to butcher this name,” or, “I’m not even going to bother to try this one.” These types of comments may make students feel ashamed of their names and responsible for the difficulty you are having. As educational blogger Jennifer Gonzalez wrote in her 2014 post “How We Pronounce Student Names and Why It Matters”: “Whether you intend to or not, what you’re communicating is this: Your name is different. Foreign. Weird. It’s not worth my time to get it right.” Don’t laugh at different sounding names when they come up in class readings or videos. Instead, look for opportunities to explore the diversity and origin of names.
Just a few short months ago, my oldest daughter graduated from high school. As it turned out, the teacher who handed out the diplomas was the Spanish teacher. Gabriela Cadahia Frankel. My daughter looked up at me and smiled. It was music to our ears.
Erin Frankel has a master’s degree in English education and is passionate about parenting, teaching, and writing. She taught ESL in Madrid, Spain, before moving to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her family. Erin knows firsthand what it feels like to be bullied, and she hopes her stories will help children stay true to who they are and help put an end to bullying. She believes in the power of kindness and is grateful to be able to spread that message through her work. In her free time, you’ll find Erin hiking in the woods with her family and doggie, Bella, or getting some words down on paper wherever and whenever she can.
Free Spirit books by Erin Frankel:
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Institute of Education Sciences, “Getting It Right: Reference Guides for Registering Students with Non-English Names.” June 2016.
Clare McLaughlin, “The Lasting Impact of Mispronouncing Students’ Names.” neaToday, September 1, 2016.
Corey Mitchell, “Mispronouncing Students’ Names: A Slight That Can Cut Deep.” Education Week, May 10, 2016.