Cards on the Table: What’s in a Name?

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I used to be very good at remembering names. So good, in fact, that I probably would have been great at selling cars. This ability is a definite asset for a teacher. In my early years of teaching high school, I could remember the names of 30 students after one class. Lately, I have been teaching writing to international university students (EAP), and the classes are smaller but I don’t put the same effort into remembering their names. Why? I am older (my memory is not what it used to be) and lazier. What I do now is I give the students large index cards to write their names on and place in front of them. This way, I know their names right away and I have a quick way of taking attendance—I collect the cards at the end of class and the cards of absent students would have remained unclaimed. This semester, I have such small classes that during one class I didn’t bother with the cards. Suddenly, Anna became “the quiet girl.” What I hadn’t realized is that the cards had been extremely useful to students in identifying each other and thus helping them to connect.


I also ask the students to put down the name they use. The majority of my students are Chinese and usually a half to three quarters of them put down an English name. When asked why, students say that their Chinese name is hard or that it is fun to pick a name, like a secret identity. I know that there are those who would object to this because of the presumed cultural dominance and the “whitewashing”, but as someone who has a Korean name which is difficult for non-Koreans to pronounce, I can relate. If you are an ESL student who is already shy, someone butchering your name while trying to pronounce it over and over again is not only offensive but it just draws unwelcome attention.

What’s in a Name?

As much as you put into it I suppose. I do not love my name (Ruth); it is too old-fashioned (aging aunt or grandmother) but I would not change it. Why don’t I use my Korean name? When we moved to the States, my father was worried about our (my sister and me) ability to adapt North American society and insisted-despite their objections-that his American friends give us English names (they thought our Korean names were lovely). So it was not a case of the dominant group insisting that we assimilate. He was right (I don’t say that a lot)! As an extremely shy child, I would have found the teachers struggling to pronounce my name unbearably mortifying. By the time I was old enough to think about it, I realized that Ruth was the name I was most comfortable with. That being said, I use my Korean name in any Korean context or environment. People have myriad reasons for keeping or changing their names.

Naming Etiquette

My one problem is students who refuse to address me by any name. I allow my students to call me Ruth, Professor Yu, or Ms. Yu. Most of the students call me Ruth. However, I have had a few students who only say “Excuse me” whenever they wanted my attention. I realized this happened because they were uncomfortable calling me by my first name because of their culture. Nonetheless, it was unnerving to never be addressed by any name.

In Korean society, you lose your first name early and it is replaced by titles or descriptions. Koreans are big on professor, reverend, doctor etc. There are even names for the wives of such distinguished members of society. Also, Koreans do something that is considered rude here: They ask your age. Why? So they know how to address you. If a girl has a friend who is older, she addresses her as older sister etc. In families, the youngest child maintains his or her name but must call older siblings, older sister or brother, never addressing any older sibling by their first name. In this case, names maintain a definite hierarchy in the society.

I don’t think names are the most important thing about you, but they are part of the first impression you make and are ultimately part of you. Therefore, I shall continue to use the name cards in my classes and try hard to remember the students’ names and pronounce them correctly. Do you use name cards?

Ruth Yu has been a lecturer at the Kings University College for two years. She teaches University Writing in English to international students, and is also the ESL grammar specialist or the “grammar yoda” for The Write Place (the King’s writing support service). She also taught high school English for ten years.


7 thoughts on “Cards on the Table: What’s in a Name?”

  1. Hi Ruth, I like to have my students write their name and a bit about themselves on an index card. Then at the beginning of each class as students come in I place them on the desk to mirror where they are sitting in the classroom. This helps me to learn their names as well as keep track to mark attendance. After awhile, I don’t need to lay them out on the desk anymore. I had never considered that having name place cards would help students learn each others names. Next time I think I’ll use them.

    1. Dear Beth,
      Thank you for your response–it is nice to know that other teachers care so much about getting students names right. Of course, I never have classes of 90 so I shouldn’t judge (I teach at the university).

  2. Ruth,
    Thank you for this post. Before all else, I want to say that I’ve always loved the name Ruth. I don’t think it’s a dated name. It’s really beautiful.

    You’ve given me a lot to think about. I teach a class of 15 seniors, 11 of them Chinese. Not one of them uses a ‘western’ name. They all go by their actual names, and it’s up to me to learn to pronounce them well. This means I invite them to give me a lesson on the tonal patterns of Mandarin. We write their names on the board along with little rising, falling, etc. arrows. I practice until I get it right. If after several tries, I still have not gotten the all smiles and nods response that comes when I finally nail it, I have the student speak his/her name into my smart phone voice recorder app three times. I take that recording home so I can practice. I try again the next day. I keep this up until I can pronounce the person’s name. For me, this is basic respect. It drives me BATTY when I hear other teachers butchering their students’ names without much concern.

    Recently two of my Chinese students transferred to my class from a mainstream CLB 3/4 class. Although they had been known by their Canadian names in the other class, from day one in my class they wanted to reclaim their actual names. I took that as a huge compliment.

    But you’ve helped me to see that there are reasons for using a Canadian name instead of the one you were given at birth. Thank you for this new insight.

  3. Dear Kelly,
    You are an amazing teacher. The effort you make for your students is phenomenal! I admit that I find the Chinese names particularly difficult to pronounce and I like your ideas for learning how to say the names correctly. It is especially wonderful that you get the students to teach you (a student in our class taught us all how to write our names in Arabic for a process analysis unit). It also gives you empathy for their difficulties with pronunciation. I want you to know that I never put pressure on students to take on an English name and I make every effort to learn to say their name correctly. In fact, the first thing I say during roll call on the first day of class is, “If I say your name incorrectly, please correct me right. away.” I am also a high school supply teacher and I say the same to the students I meet even though I may never see them again. In this case, some of the most difficult are Irish names like Shiobhan. My own son is named Sean. It is fun thinking about names–one of our personal essay topics is based on names. Thanks for your feedback.

  4. Thanks for the discussion on some of the reasons for and against the use of Anglicized names. Very helpful!

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