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Names In The English Language Classroom

Issues associated with the use of student and teacher names in class.

This article is about the many tricky issues surrounding the use of student and teacher names in class.

Information you will want to know before you make decisions on the use of names in class includes:

  • If they are already likely to have “English names”
  • What their attitude to “English names” might be
  • How they would be expected to be addressed in the classroom in their own language, including whether it would vary from person to person (e.g. because of age or status)
  • How much they will expect or be prepared to accept forms of address in an English class that are different to what would be usual in their language
  • What previous teachers have done
  • How their name is pronounced in their own language
  • If there are any mispronunciations to be particularly careful to avoid (e.g. because it would make their name sound like a rude word in their language)
  • Other cultural differences (e.g. putting surname first)

“English names”

One of the trickiest choices can be when there is an issue of “English names”, meaning students using names like Vicky or Rocky in the classroom and perhaps later in all their dealings in English. They might have chosen such a name themselves or have been given it by an earlier teacher, or you might choose to give English names to some or all of the students.

Possible advantages of giving “English names” include:

  • Saving them from possible mispronunciations of their real name that might sound insulting (in their language or other languages)
  • Saving them from people mixing up their family name and first name
  • Making the use of first names more acceptable than it might otherwise be (due to being impolite in L1)
  • Allowing them to take on a role in class and therefore drop their inhibitions and/ or some cultural baggage when speaking in English
  • Giving them the chance to reinvent themselves if that is what they want to do, as some people do when they move abroad or interact with foreign people
  • Making names easier for the teacher to pronounce and/ or remember
  • Distinguishing between people in classes where they have the same names

Possible disadvantages include:

  • Students being given or choosing inappropriate names (“Vicky” mentioned above was actually a male student)
  • Perpetuating an idea that English cannot be used to communicate their own ideas, personality and culture, but instead entails taking on native speaker culture
  • Emphasizing the authority of the teacher (if the teacher chooses)
  • Taking away the opportunity for real conversations about their names such as “What does your name mean?” and “Is it a popular name in your country?”
  • Students not being able to pronounce their own “English names”

If you choose not to go down this route yourself, you might still have people who introduce themselves with “English names” and will then need to decide on whether you will insist on using their real names or not.

English use of names

With students who introduce themselves with their real name, you still have a choice of what form to use. In English, the correct forms are generally:

  • First name (= Given name/ Christian name) on its own
  • Shortening of their given name (such as “Alex” for Alejandro)
  • Other nicknames
  • Title (Mr/ Mrs/ Ms/ Miss/ Dr/ etc) + last name (=Family name)
  • Title from their own language (-san/ Monsieur/ Herr/ Signora/ etc) + last name/ family name

Things to bear in mind when choosing which ones to use include local norms and setting the right balance of politeness and friendliness in your class. Especially with in-company classes, there might also be issues with students copying the way you address the other students even when it is not really appropriate, e.g. using the first name of their boss.

Local use of names

If none of the English ways of addressing people mentioned above strike the right mix of politeness and friendliness, there might be other local options, for example:

  • Title + given name
  • Other respectful titles (Teacher/ Engineer/ Section manager/ etc), in English or their own language (e.g. “Sensei”), maybe with some form of their name
  • Affectionate titles and tags (-ito/ -chan/ etc – a bit like “my son” or adding a –y to names in English)
  • Nicknames in everyday use, e.g. the nicknames that many Thai people usually use in place of their given names

If you choose to use any of these in class, you might want to point out that this is not common in English and maybe your reasons for choosing to use it in your class.

You could also of course let them choose, perhaps teaching useful phrases such as “What would you like me to call you?” and “How should I address you?” Issues with letting them choose include:

  • Some people choosing more respectful forms and this adding to differences in status that impede classroom interactions
  • People just copying each other and so not ending up with something they are comfortable with
  • Attempting to guess what you want them to choose rather than thinking about which they prefer
  • Missing a chance to get them comfortable with being addressed in a way they are likely to be when they interact with foreign people

You’ll also need to decide how you want to be addressed. If you choose just your first name, some students might need some encouraging to actually use it, and some people believe it can lead to discipline problems with young learners. With adults, you might want to point out that calling you “Teacher” and “Sir” is not really age-appropriate.

Pronouncing names

As mentioned above, there can be some serious issues with mispronouncing students’ names. Examples include:

  • Sounding rude in their language
  • Sounding rude in English or other languages
  • Not actually recognising that they are being addressed, e.g. because there is someone else in class whose name sounds the same when they are pronounced by an English speaker (a particular problem in young learner classes where the use of names is the least important discipline technique)

The simplest approach is to ask them to correct you, perhaps teaching them language they need to do so such as “You need to stress the last syllable”. I always introduce this by telling them that I will be correcting their pronunciation a lot and so this is their chance to do the same for me. I also make some kind of note of the pronunciation of the more difficult names, e.g. marking the stress or using a few phonetic symbols on my class register.

Other ways of avoiding possible pronunciation problems include:

  • Asking someone how the names on your class list are likely to be pronounced, perhaps writing something to remind you
  • Using another form of their name, e.g. family name plus title, that is easier to pronounce
  • Asking them to give you an easier-to-pronounce form to use
  • Giving them a nickname or English name

If none of these things are issues, you might rather decide to deliberately pronounce their name in a more English style, to avoid sounds that don’t exist in English (perhaps as part of a policy of avoiding L1) or to give them practice in recognising other pronunciations of their name.

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Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub | June 2011
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.

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