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Why mispronouncing a name can undermine a student’s identity – and how to help

It matters when names are mispronounced, disregarded, or even mocked in the classroom.

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Almost everyone has school memories of the student — or students — who had to bear the brunt of having a name that others couldn’t, or wouldn’t, correctly pronounce. A name that was different from their peers, or “difficult” for a teacher to say out loud. But the question is, different from what, and why was the pronunciation challenging? A name like Kholoud may raise an eyebrow in the United States, but in many Arabic-speaking countries, the name is much more common.

The Building Blocks of Identity

On an audible level, our names are the most basic building blocks of our identity. It is how we are called, recognized, and recorded by the community at large. So what happens when that name is stigmatized, especially in an educational setting?

The world’s population is becoming more diffuse, and names representing different cultural and linguistic backgrounds are increasingly the norm in American classrooms. According to research by Dr. Rita Kohli, an associate professor in the Education, Society, and Culture program at the University of California, Riverside, when a child first goes to school, they have invested thought and care in building an identity around the name they have been known by all their lives. When that name is negated — for instance, when someone is told “It’s too difficult for me to pronounce,” especially by a person in a position of authority (i.e., a teacher) — that identity suffers.

“[Students] began to feel that internal embarrassment or shame. They began to feel anxiety and stress when their name was said during roll call,” says Kohli.

This isn’t to say teachers should automatically know how to say a word they are unfamiliar with. But they should ask a student how to pronounce said word, and take the time to learn it. Telling a student they would prefer to not say their name reinforces a sense of embarrassment or shame in a name, which can have debilitating effects on a student’s participation.

According to Kohli, when teachers or professors refused to use a student’s given name, they became “...less willing to speak out in class. They were less interested in raising their hand to answer questions if they didn’t want their name to be called. And so in a sense, they began to shrink and want to be more invisible in that space.”

The Importance of Making an Effort

Educational researchers aren’t the only ones noting this trend. Students with names that depart from the American “norm” are also vocal about the issue. Their sentiment largely mirrors that of Kohli: They’re not expecting a stranger to nail the pronunciation of their name off the bat, but they’d like to see someone make the effort. That “someone” is ideally a teacher or similar authority figure who will lead by example.

As Raghdan Hassan, a Syrian healer based in Los Angeles, puts it, “I kind of liked that part where [my name] creates the dialogue that’s like, ‘Oh, where does that come from? What does it mean? What is the heritage?’ But that doesn’t happen very often with people.”

The issue of names from outside the mainstream American milieu can also exacerbate existing issues of cultural or racial alienation. According to Kohli, American schools are already engaged in a sort of “assimilationist project,” and resisting a gentle correction to pronunciation reinforces said assimilation.

“I was the only black kid in most of my classes, so it was another thing that made you feel like, ‘Oh, I’m alone, or I’m the other,’ or whatever,” says screenwriter Ajani Jackson. “Sometimes your classmates would giggle, and even when your classmates had known you for a while and they may try to correct the teacher to help you out, they’re still getting it wrong.” Jackson says he went by “AJ” for many years, and regrets the nickname, looking back.

“Hard to Pronounce” Is Always Relative

No name is really unpronounceable, and that diversity of sound is not tied to any one continent, culture, country, or race. In southern Africa, languages like Zulu and Xhosa utilize clicks. The word “Xhosa” begins with a lateral click (imagine the noise people make to urge a horse forward). In Welsh, there’s “d” as in David, and “dd,” which makes a hard “th,” as in “that.” The Czech “ř,” pronounced sort of (but not exactly) like the “ersh” in “harsh,” is notoriously tricky for non-native speakers. In Arabic, the 18th letter of the alphabet, ع (ayn), can sound, to a non-native speaker, remarkably similar to the alphabet’s first letter, أ (alef). Mixing up the phonetics could result in a person saying the word “pain” (ألم) when they meant to say “scientist” (عالم). The entire Spanish island of La Gomera has a whistle language.

Then there’s the world language with perhaps the most infamously inconsistent spelling and pronunciation guidelines: English. If someone says they are suffering from a “rough cough,” they are using the exact same letter grouping to create two completely different pronunciations. As for English spelling? It gave the world a seamstress and a sewer who fell into a sewer, and Cheryl being through with the game after Sheryl threw the ball, and Jeff accusing Geoff of being a liar when he said he could play a lyre. When it comes to weird spelling examples in English, these are only a few (phew!).

There is no surefire formula for determining which sounds are difficult for native English speakers to pronounce, partially because there is such a wide range of accents and dialects across the English language. West Coasters understand “hella” can modify both an adjective or adverb, someone from Louisiana has no problem pronouncing “Geaux Tigers,” and a Newfoundlander wouldn’t blink at the phrase “I’se The B’y.”

The point is, no language can claim to have “easier” spelling or pronunciation than others. Ease of pronunciation can be traced to language dominance, rather than any language’s inherent sound structure. If a teacher (or anyone) is unfamiliar with a name, this is usually on account of a lack of exposure, rather than any fault that can be ascribed to the name itself. (And, of course, lack of exposure is not in and of itself a character flaw.)

With all of that said, there is an exhaustive database of phonemes — the sounds that make up words and language — over at the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS).

One Solution? Simply Ask

Assuming you don’t have time to comb through the fricatives of Koryak or the diphthongs of Basque, you should simply ask a student on their preferred pronunciation. A solid effort overcomes any initial difficulties when it comes to pronunciation.

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