Pronouncing students’ names correctly: the whys and hows

Xin Xu, Natasha Robinson and Niall Winters explain why correctly articulating students’ names is so important to an inclusive learning environment, and provide practical tips for pronouncing Chinese names

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University of Oxford
26 Jul 2021
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Why getting students' names right is important to creating an inclusive learning environment

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Why is it important to pronounce students’ names correctly?

Have you ever encountered a student whose name appears as Latin alphabet but is difficult for you to pronounce? When you teach online, how do you address such a student, when body language and eye contact are not so useful any more?

Some lecturers may muddle through with their best pronunciation guess, risking the awkward likelihood that the student cannot recognise the pronunciation of their own name and might feel offended. Some lecturers may simply never call on the student, which is actively discriminatory.

Names bear significance to one’s identity, family and culture, all of which should be valued and respected. Furthermore, pronouncing students’ names incorrectly could constitute a form of racial microaggression.

In an increasingly multilingual, multicultural, multiracial and multinational higher education context, there are more and more students with names not familiar to English speakers. To ensure an inclusive and welcoming learning environment, pronouncing each other’s names correctly is a seemingly small yet vitally important step.

We do not need to speak multiple languages to manage to do that.

This article provides a few tips about name pronunciations and quick facts about Chinese names. While it talks specifically about lecturers pronouncing students’ names, the tips apply to anyone who would like to pronounce other people’s names correctly.

Tips on pronouncing students’ names correctly

Learn from the students: If possible, the best way is to ask students to pronounce their names, learn from them, take notes, repeat after them, record the pronunciation upon consent and, if necessary, encourage the students to correct you if required.

Consult people and the internet: Colleagues and friends can be helpful points of contact. Some websites and online videos provide pronunciations of names in different languages, among them Pronounce Names, Forvo, NameShouts. However, remember to always double-check the pronunciation with the students.

Learn more about what is behind the name: You can always find out more about the language, culture or even personal stories behind each name. It may help you to remember the name better.

How to pronounce names in Mandarin Chinese correctly?

Chinese language has variations in spoken and written forms. Here we focus on Mandarin Chinese and uses “Chinese” and “Mandarin” interchangeably.

There are numerous resources that cover the pronunciation of Chinese names, some of which contain brief guidance on the most common Chinese surnames, audio files and cheat sheets for Chinese names.

A few facts about Chinese names:

Surnames come first, and no middle names in Chinese: When writing names in English, some still follow the Surname first rule as it exists in Chinese (eg, Li Qingzhao). Some adopt the English order as given name first (eg, Qingzhao Li). Some capitalise the surname (eg, Qingzhao LI) to make the distinction clear. Some separate the given name by syllables (eg, Qing Zhao Li or Li Qing Zhao); but in these cases, neither Qing or Zhao should be mistaken as a middle name.

English spellings eliminate variations in the pronunciations and meanings of Chinese names: English spellings of Chinese names are based on Chinese pinyin, the romanised pronunciation of Chinese characters. Each pinyin can correspond to multiple Chinese characters. Each Chinese character can also have multiple pronunciations, hence multiple pinyin forms.

There are more than 10,000 Chinese characters, but only 26 letters in Pinyin and the English alphabet. Variations are thus lost in the conversion into English spelling.

People with the same names in English can have different Chinese names: Take one author’s name for example, Xin is the pronunciation and pinyin form for many Chinese characters, such as 心 (mainly means “heart”), 新 (mainly means “new”), 欣 (mainly means “happiness’). Xu also has multiple possibilities in Chinese.

So, there could be millions of Xin Xu in the English-speaking world, all with different Chinese names. This is why some Chinese people include their Chinese names with their romanised names when possible (许心 in this case). The same happens with names in other languages such as Japanese.

The four tones are not deal-breakers. Chinese pinyin has four tones. But tones do not exist in English. Therefore, even native Chinese speakers may pronounce a Chinese name wrong if they are looking only at the English spelling of it. But Chinese people can often recognise or guess the words despite the tones, and people tend to be understanding of those not familiar with the tones.

Understand Chinese students with English names

Some Chinese students introduce themselves with an English name that may not relate to their Chinese name. For example, a student may say: “My name is Fenglu Xiao in Chinese, but you can call me Alex.”

Why does this happen? There are many possible reasons, for example:

  • Some students prefer their English name, which they use much more frequently than their Chinese name in everyday life.

  • Some like their English name better because they have chosen it themselves, whereas their Chinese name was given to them.

  • Some feel that their Chinese names can be difficult to pronounce, and think that having an English name in an English-speaking environment will make communications easier.

  • Some are forced to have an English name. They may have encountered non-Chinese-speaking people’s struggle over pronouncing their names so often that it has negatively impacted their learning and everyday experiences. Or their Chinese names could become so strange when converted into the English spelling that they have to create an English name to avoid embarrassment.

  • Some simply obtained an English name when they first started learning English, and they kept using the English name out of habit ever since.

Whatever the reason is, it is helpful not to be judgmental. Ask the student their preferred name, and learn to pronounce it correctly.

Not only about names

Creating an inclusive learning environment for multicultural student bodies does not stop at only getting the names correct. Much more can be done. For instance, educators can respect and learn more about different cultural and religious traditions, festivals, expressions, knowledges and practices.

These are not tick-box tasks. Rather, we hope they can be understood and experienced as opportunities to enrich each other, and to appreciate the beauty of the different cultures we are privileged to engage with.

Xin Xu is a research fellow and Natasha Robinson is a postdoctoral research officer, both in the Centre for Global Higher Education at the University of Oxford.

Niall Winters is professor of education and technology in the Learning and New Technologies Research Group, also at the University of Oxford.

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