“A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”– Dale Carnegie
The quote above reminds me how we tend to forget the subtle but strong significance that names can hold. A name is one of the greatest definitions of our identity. Whether it’s a name bestowed upon us at birth, or one we choose for ourselves, a name reflects our individuality to the world, and for a lot of people, a name is what connects them to their culture. This is also why it can be so harmful when a name is continuously misspelled and/or mispronounced, especially for young people.
I’m from South Korea and my name is very Korean. However, I’ve only lived outside of Korea my whole life and can still remember the confusion I felt when I was young and kept hearing all sorts of variations on how others pronounced my name. A Korean pronunciation at home and a different, Westernized version at school. I became confused about how I should introduce myself to new people. Should I go with the Korean pronunciation? Or go with the Americanized version and save myself from correcting and embarrassing them – they’ll probably end up pronouncing it like that anyway.
With this confusion came the added teasing about my name that initially seemed harmless, but in actuality, was doing more damage than anticipated. I subconsciously became ashamed of my name, and in turn, I became ashamed of my culture. I resented my parents for giving me a difficult Korean name when they knew I’d be brought up in international settings. I dreamt of being an Emma or an Amanda or a Sophie and pleaded with them to give me an “American” name; one that others could actually say.
But, why? Why should my name have to be mispronounced at my own discomfort for the convenience of others? Why is my name and my culture something to ridicule and disrespect? Why must such an integral part of my identity be distorted and erased?
And I don’t think I’m alone in my experiences: this is the problem. I think anyone who has what others deem a “difficult” name – mainly POC – understands the accumulating frustration because at one point, it’s impossible to correct others over and over again; at one point, you just give up. This should not be the case. Research shows when teachers fail to pronounce the names of students properly, it negatively impacts their self-perception and worldview (Kohli & Solórzano, 2012). Moreover, this micro-aggression can result in students distancing themselves from their own language, culture, and families (McLaughlin, 2016).
I believe that in order to make sure that young people feel as comfortable as possible in their school environments, administrations should implement services that allow students to personally clarify the pronunciation of their names. Recently, my principal has offered the web service NameCoach that allows students to voice record their names and identify their preferred pronouns. I believe this is a great step towards creating an environment of trust, inclusivity, respect, and celebration of identity among students and faculty at school.
The example of actress Uzo Aduba comes to mind. Born Uzoamaka Nwanneka Aduba, she tells Glamour the story of how she asked her mother to call her “Zoe” when her American teachers, neighbors, and schoolmates kept mispronouncing her name. Her mother’s response? “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky, and Michelangelo, and Dostoevsky,” she said, “Then they can learn to say ‘Uzoamaka’”.
In a similar vein, despite the confusion and embarrassment I had about my name when I was younger, I am now very proud of my name and what it represents. It is the name my grandmother gave me. By embracing it, I embrace my identity as a Korean-American, and I have started to introduce myself with the Korean pronunciation of my name.
colorincolorado. (2018). The importance of names and saying them correctly [YouTube Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TXgaQRc5Ew
Kohli, R., & Solórzano, D. G. (2012). Teachers, please learn our names!: racial microagressions and the K-12 classroom. Race Ethnicity and Education, 15(4), 441–462. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2012.674026
McLaughlin, C. (2016). The Lasting Impact of Mispronouncing Students’ Names | NEA. Retrieved from www.nea.org website: https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/lasting-impact-mispronouncing-students-names
OLORISUPERGAL TV. (2017). Uzo Aduba never liked her name [YouTube Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTPC73SdRkA
Rice, P. C. (2017, November 15). Pronouncing Students’ Names Correctly Should Be a Big Deal – Education Week. Retrieved December 5, 2020, from Teacher website: https://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2017/11/15/pronouncing-students-names-correctly-should-be-a.html