Calling our students by their names

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~A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But would it, really?

My name, Jennifer, comes from the Welsh Gwenhwyfar. It means “white wave” or “fair lady.” Although I don’t see myself as a “lady,” I do like the rhythmic majesty of “wave.” The tumbling, repetitive motion of it. But if it weren’t for the research I did, I wouldn’t have a clue what my name means. My parents certainly didn’t put much thought into it; they just liked it. Indeed, according to Ye Chongguang, “Chinese names are often chosen for their meaning, but English names are chosen for their sounds” (Lee, 2001).

Every year, my EAP class rosters are filled with Annies, Ivans, Lindas and Vincents. Yet, behind these names are Asian and Middle Eastern students with Asian and Middle Eastern names—names that were chosen with deliberate, painstaking care. I have always felt funny using their English names. Sure, they’re easier for me to pronounce, but why should it be about me? Something just doesn’t sit right. Last term, I gave a narrative assignment to my Ryerson students as part of a unit on identity. Many shared how important their birth name is to them. Some even said that it defines them. Here is a sampling from their narratives:

My name is the answer of “who I am”…with this name, I understand my status in my family…[it] means being safe every day and always being a smart and brave girl, which is an expectation of my family members.  Yanling “Annie” Chan (China)

[A professor] told me that I should have an English name which could potentially broaden my education and work in the future. After a long time of considering which English name should I have for myself, “Fin” was eventually chosen…based on the wrong pronunciation that people used. Having a name which everyone can easily pronounce is very useful when it comes to having good impression to other people. Phuong “Fin” Le (China)

[A] name is a kind of language and basically everyone’s name has special meaning. For example, my Chinese name is Xinyi Fang; Fang is my last name and follows [that of] my father. Xinyi is my first name which has special meaning. My mom told me Xin is heart and Yi is happy and contented, as a result, it means I can follo[w] my heart and be happiness. Xinyi “Era” Fang (China)

I’ve been called by my name for my entire life and I’m not planning to change it. My name is the first thing that I own[ed] when I was born, and it [is] also the lasting [one] that I can keep at the end of my life. It is like an asset that identif[ies] myself, my characteristics and the way who I am. Phuoc Huy Le (Vietnam)

For the Chinese culture, it is very important and serious that the family gather together to discuss the child’s name…. Many families even invite some more knowledgeable people to name their children. My name is given to me by my grandfather; my last name is Zhang…. My name is Qi Zhu. The meaning of Qi in Chinese characters is wealth, treasure and peace. This word is the cherish and expectation of my family. I am very important in their lives, and the whole family regards me as a unique treasure. Zhu means bamboo. This plant grows very tall and fast and can be used in many places. My family hopes that I can be a useful person no matter where I am and be a person who will not be defeated by difficulties. Quizhu “Lexie” Zhang (China)

Reading their reflections made me reflect on names and identity.  Given the connection, who am I to call them anything else? What drives students to cast off their names like bulky sweaters when they arrive in our classrooms? A little research told me that the reasons are multiple and complex.


Learners get anxious and embarrassed when their teachers repeatedly “butcher” their names (Kim, 2019). I have witnessed the grimaces and blanched expressions in my own classrooms. Can we not master the pronunciation with a little phonetics support and help from the students themselves?


Kim (2019) provides some dismal statistics borne of linguistic imperialism: “candidates with Anglo-sounding names were 35% more likely to be chosen by employers than those with non-Anglo-sounding names, despite identical education, skills, and work histories” (p.10). So, this tells me that we need a paradigm shift in human resources. Until then, should we dissuade learners from using a name that just might help them get a job?


For some, using an English moniker creates a respectful distance between themselves and the instructor, while reserving their birth names for social relationships (Edwards, 2006; Huang & Ke, 2016). Other students want to shed their birth names to negotiate an identity that makes them more of a player in English-speaking culture. As Edwards (2016) says, an English name “confer[s] a kind of symbolic capital (a kind of status, or…face) in that it opens the doors of communication at a very basic level (p. 97).Students have strong rationale to use English names, but at the same time, let’s not forget the undeniable affinity they have for their birth names and hence to their identity, family, and culture. Wouldn’t these ties be even more important when our students are far away from home? According to a University of California study called “Teacher, please learn our names!: racial microaggressions and the K-12 classroom,” we can damage our students’ self-esteem and cultural identities when we mispronounce their names (Dupuy, 2016).

So, what should educators do?

Personally, I will no longer assume that if my students have an English name, that’s the one to use. Instead, I will put them in the driver’s seat and get them to decide. In addition, I will have a class dialogue wherein we share the meanings of our names as well as the naming traditions in our cultures. Indeed, at the start of this term, I replaced the traditional “get to know you” activity with a “get to know the meaning of your name” activity. It was one of the most energizing and illuminating discussions I’ve ever had in the classroom.

So, the next time you stand before a class of new students, think twice before calling “Annie” and not “Hajung.


 Dupuy, B. (2016, Nov 04). What’s in a student’s name? family, culture, identity, stories. Star      Tribune. Retrieved from  

Edwards, R. (2006). What’s in a name? Chinese learners and the practice of adopting        ‘English’ names. Language, Culture and Curriculum19(1), 90-103. doi:10.1080/07908310608668756

Huang, C., & Ke, I. (2016). Parents’ perspectives on adopting English names in Taiwan. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development37(8), 849-861.          doi:10.1080/01434632.2016.1144760

Kim, A.S. (2019) Shuai vs. Sean: What’s in an English name for students? Contact, 45(2), 5-16. Lee, J. (2001, Feb 12). China youth take names from west: Hi medusa! New York Times (1923-   Current File) Retrieved from

I’m Jennifer Hutchison and I teach EAP and communications at George Brown College in Toronto. I have also taught courses in sociolinguistics in the English Foundation Program at Toronto Metropolitan University. In my spare time, I write short stories, read, exercise, and bake (the last two are codependent). Teaching English is my passion. I am curious about the world around me and feel fortunate to have that world brought to me every day in the classroom. Nevertheless, I took a circuitous route to discover this passion. After my undergraduate degree in French and translation, I worked as a translator and then veered off into writing and editing, which I did from home while I raised my children (four of them!). In none of these positions (except, possibly, childrearing) was I helping anybody, so I returned to school, launched my ESL career, and have never looked back. I look forward to working with you and sharing experiences and strategies on the Blog!


4 thoughts on “Calling our students by their names”

  1. Interesting and effective activity. Every New Year class for the first week usually this is my Warm up activity daily. Get to know eachother, their names, meanings origin and if tbey like it or not. 99.99%students love their names. Those who dont know the meanings i help them to explore. Here we have family names too thats also a fruitful discussion (Enrichment of vocabulary).

    1. Great to hear that Rana. And, indeed, the “get-to-know-your-name” activity can have numerous offshoots, such as discussing the naming traditions across cultures , learning new vocabulary, and using phonetic symbols to transcirbe birth names.


  2. It was very enlightening to read what the students actually think about changing their names. So, from now on, I am going to put the effort into learning their original name for those who decide to keep it in the classroom environment.

    Your activity is not only interesting in this regard, but also fun.
    I’ll definitely use it.

  3. Thanks, Christiana! I am so glad that the blog resonated with you.

    Apart from feeling a little uncomfortable about it, I had never really questioned name choice before.

    I am grateful to be talking about it with my students now and wish I had been doing so all along!

    You will see how animated the class gets during the discussions.

    Another element worth exploring is what to do when a student has chosen, or has had been given, a regrettable English name. My colleague had a student named “Zero” and, fortunately, he convinced him to change it.

    I have had students who named themselves after celebrities or movie characters, such as “Grace Kelly” and “Anakin” (an interesting juxtaposition there!).

    If students end up using these kinds of English names on job applications, they may not be taken seriously. So, I think it would be wise to have a conversation with them about it.

    Lots to think about with names!

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