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Sapphire120

Should international students change their names in class?

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So I have a freshman in my discussion section in a class I'm TAing for who is from China (first time living in the US). He is listed on the roll under his Chinese name but he told me he goes by "Leo." So I'll of course call him that since that's what he prefers to go by (as I do for any other student). But it just got me thinking -- shouldn't it be my responsibility to learn how to say his Chinese name rather than his responsibility to change his name to make it easier for his American instructors to say? 

I remember once being in a tennis class in which there were a lot of Asian students and when the coach was calling roll, he got flustered trying to pronounce their names and finally said "Can't you all just come up with English names that I can call you by?" which came off as culturally insensitive to me (his tone more than anything). 

I briefly thought about sending my student an email or pulling him aside after class in private to tell him that I don't mind learning how to say his Chinese name and call him by that IF he wants. But then I thought maybe it would make him feel singled-out and uncomfortable when maybe he just wants an American name and to blend in. 

So is the safest bet just to call him Leo? 

Edited by Sapphire120

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This is an important issue to me! Personally, I think people should be called by the name they choose. I agree with you that it's all of our responsibilities to call others by the name they identify as. 

I think it would be okay to ask him, in private, whether he would prefer to go by his Chinese name or his English name. It is likely that he would still choose to identify with his English name because while people like you might care enough to learn his Chinese name, he might already have established an identity for himself as "Leo". However, asking him is the best practice, in my opinion. It lets him know that he has a choice. I think emailing him or finding a time to chat with him in private about it would be fine.

I know many students who initially go by an "English" name and then after they feel more like they fit in, they start using the name they prefer instead. So I would say that we should just respect their decision, let them know that we support their choices, and not be surprised if the student chooses a different option later on.

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To offer perspective, I was born American to immigrant parents, and have a name that's "ethnic" that sounds similar to an "English" sounding name, so I always had to make an effort to stop people from calling me the "English" version because its "easier." I personally have a very strong name identity so I make a point to encourage people to use my real name to the best of their ability, out of respect for me, and because to me there are two categories: my name, and not my name. Deciding to no longer allow others to mispronounce my name was a very empowering time of my life and I always encourage others with "difficult" names to do the same just to see how it makes them feel when others start to get it.  "To the best of their ability" is the key there though. It's not your responsibility to have perfect pronunciation, just to try your best, so asking for a nickname before demonstrating an effort is super disrespectful. Even if you make a million tries and you still can't get it right, it's up to the person themselves to present an alternative. That coach doesn't get to just change someone's name because he doesn't want to try anymore.

That said, I completely understand the desire to Anglicize. It really is easier, that's the plain and simple of it. I fault no one for it because whatever rationale they have for that decision, I'm likely to agree with their concerns.

To your particular situation, you don't need to ask him. He already told you he goes by Leo. He didn't just come up with a random name on the spot, meaning he thought about the issue long enough to come to a decision on it, and considered different options to choose an "English" name he likes. He wouldn't have told you he goes by Leo unless he actually wants to be called that. Asking him now is redundant, and you risk coming across as not accepting the preference he clearly stated. It's also easier to have everyone in a particular environment use the same name, so if you're the only one calling him his Chinese name, it would be weird.

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As someone who had lived in the US for a couple of years as an international student when I was a high school student, I think the fact that you have this question tells a lot about how thoughtful and considerate you are of others' feelings. Back when I was in the US, not many people asked me about the reason I went by an English name made up by me. In my case, it was after one accident that I invented a new name. One of my teachers in the public high school I went to could not pronounce my name and I thought he was calling another student and ended up getting marked absent a few times. (This happened especially because he mistakenly thought that the second part of my long first name is my middle name and only called the first part of my name.) And then I decided to get myself a new nickname for my own convenience.

But the thing is, though this new name was something Americans could pronounce easily, I actually got this name from a Filipina singer I admired so much (I'm not Filipina, but I loved her so!), so I ended up really liking this name. I would put my actual name in parenthesis sometimes for my school records. Having a new name somehow made it much easier for me to emotionally adjust to a new environment since my mind could accept the fact that I'm in a foreign country and likely to face cultural and language barriers as a foreign student. Of course I also loved it when my friends were curious to know my real name and call me by that. But I also got attached to my new name. You wrote about how it is not "his responsibility to change his name to make it easier for his American instructors to say." I think this is considerate of you to think this way, but I think it is also possible that he changed his name for other reasons or maybe he came to like it like I did. I think having the "freedom to" and not just the "freedom from" is nice and can be refreshing.

So, although I think that it is quite insensitive and even rude to demand someone else to have an English name just because that someone moved to an English speaking country, in my personal opinion, it is perfectly fine to call "Leo" Leo if that's what he wants to go by. 

If I were you, I would either ask him about his preference or, if he didn't hesitate when he first told you that he goes by Leo, I might just call him that! :) As you already suggested in your post, that could make him feel more comfortable. Of course, I'm aware that the fact that I have an experience of being an international student does not mean that I could represent other international students. I just wanted to share my perspective, especially since I really liked and appreciated your question! 

 

 

 

Edited by littlemy

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I am the type of person, especially 10+ years ago when I was a freshman, that would have appreciated an "double check" or an explicit invitation to use my real name by an authority figure. But I agree with @ayasofaya that it can also risk coming across as not accepting his decision already. Ultimately, no single solution works for everyone, so you have to use your judgement. I also misunderstood the original post, I thought the student has said something to the effect of "oh you can call me Leo instead" but now re-reading it, it sure sounds more like the student told you to call him Leo instead of his other name. In this case, calling him Leo as he requested should cause no problems. If your relationship with this student gets to the point where you can discuss these things with him, you could ask him again if you think it's right.

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I have a beginning of the semester survey where I ask students to tell me about themselves, and one of the questions I ask is what they'd like me to call them. Sometimes it's a case like this, sometimes it's a "Thomas" who'd much prefer to be called Tom. 

Along with asking preferred pronouns, it's a space for students to tell me what they would prefer, and then I go by that. 

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I'm an international student who goes by a different name in the US. In fact at this point being called by my real name is confusing and there has been a time that someone called me by my real name and I started speaking in my native language. When people find out that I go by a nickname, they try to be nice and always ask what my real name is, and then I try to teach them, and they mispronounce it (I don't blame them) and get upset that they can't pronounce it right. I don't mind being called something else, and I'm not always in the mood to teach people how to say my real name right. So calling this student "Leo" is totally fine.

I also don't think it's insensitive or rude to demand an English or anglicized name from someone. No one is obligated to spend time getting your (or mine) name right.

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Everyone should be called however they choose. I have, in the past, used a western-sounding name, but eventually decided I didn't like it. For reference, I have a name that, if you're from a different culture, you may have trouble with as far as identifying my gender and using its correct pronunciation. I have a whole part of my website dedicated to the etymology of my first and last names along with a recording of me saying them and an IPA (international phonetic alphabet) transcription (I am a linguist, after all). I expect anyone who is a long-term friend , teacher, or colleague  to make the effort to say my name correctly (I do accept some distortions, though; I use a somewhat Americanized pronunciation anyway, so what the heck). I really don't think it's too much to expect this from anyone who I have a professional or personal relationship with. For short-term interactions such as coffeeshops and the like, I have a Western coffee name I quite like that baristas know me by. 

Short answer: call the student whatever they ask to be called. In general, ask people how they want to be called, and show a willingness to learn and use unfamiliar names. 

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1 hour ago, Eigen said:

I have a beginning of the semester survey where I ask students to tell me about themselves, and one of the questions I ask is what they'd like me to call them. Sometimes it's a case like this, sometimes it's a "Thomas" who'd much prefer to be called Tom. 

Along with asking preferred pronouns, it's a space for students to tell me what they would prefer, and then I go by that. 

Funny story.  There was a guy in one of my smaller classes (for the major- we all knew each other) that thought he would be funny and request to be called "Grand Master J" when this question came around.  I still don't know his real name.  He will forever be "Grand Master J."

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I have a not horribly uncommon american name, but it comes with a south Tennessee pronunciation that most people outside my family has ever been able to get or even hear, for the most part. 

I reverted to the more traditional version of it years ago- although it took me a long time of practice to be able to say it, to be honest. Only my closest friends have ever really tried, and most of them have gotten it with practice. 

I tell students about this sometimes, because it's not just something that happens to international students, and can make everyone feel more comfortable. 

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14 hours ago, Sapphire120 said:

So I have a freshman in my discussion section in a class I'm TAing for who is from China (first time living in the US). He is listed on the roll under his Chinese name but he told me he goes by "Leo." So I'll of course call him that since that's what he prefers to go by (as I do for any other student). But it just got me thinking -- shouldn't it be my responsibility to learn how to say his Chinese name rather than his responsibility to change his name to make it easier for his American instructors to say? 

I remember once being in a tennis class in which there were a lot of Asian students and when the coach was calling roll, he got flustered trying to pronounce their names and finally said "Can't you all just come up with English names that I can call you by?" which came off as culturally insensitive to me (his tone more than anything). 

I briefly thought about sending my student an email or pulling him aside after class in private to tell him that I don't mind learning how to say his Chinese name and call him by that IF he wants. But then I thought maybe it would make him feel singled-out and uncomfortable when maybe he just wants an American name and to blend in. 

So is the safest bet just to call him Leo? 

It is very common for international students to go by English names different from their legal names. I was born overseas, and my legal name is difficult for native speakers to pronounce. As a result, I always go by my English name, and don't expect anyone to call my legal name. In fact, I get offended if my name is called wrongly. That often happens to my friends who are international students/were born overseas; I call them as they prefer. 

For your student, I would just call him "Leo" as he indicated. If you are interested in how his Chinese name is pronounced, you can ask him as causal chat. It is a good way to bond with your students. Don't pull him aside or email him about that, as it will just make the situation awkward. I would definitely feel uncomfortable if my tutor pulled me aside or emailed me to find out how my legal name is pronounced. 

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I find that the majority of my students who are actually of Asian extraction tend to do this, and I can certainly sympathize. I have a very English (if very old fashioned) first name, and it drives francophones up the wall, so when I go to France I just ask them to call me Léon, which is close enough to what they were saying anyway. It just saves me from having the same conversation fifty billion times. Similarly, in Italy, I just use my Italian middle name, although I have to remember to shift the accent on my Italian last name back to what it should be.

As with @Eigen, I pass around a sheet on the first day of class on which I ask students for their given name, nickname preference, and personal pronoun. It streamlines the process and doubles as attendance. 

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I'm a white American. My mother literally made up my name. I've never been asked to come up with a nickname/other name for myself to make it easier on the instructor even though almost every person I've met has had issues pronouncing my name (usually only linguists and trekkies get it right). I think this discussion is important as it helps us recognize such disparities. I personally like what @Eigen and @telkanuru do with passing around a sheet. I'd rather give everyone the chance to choose a nickname (if they wish) or the chance to help me pronounce their name correctly. That being said, if I interpreted your post correctly, OP, this student is used to using Leo and, as such, won't be offended that you do so. 

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I'm in agreement that we should all ask people what they prefer to be called and then honor that request.  I am American and have an ethnic name and the quickest way to get on my nerves is to shorten it or create a nickname without asking me.  When I was younger teachers forced a nickname that I didn't ask for or like and it stuck clear until high school graduation when I could disappear into college and use any name I wanted.  I have no problem correcting people repeatedly when they get my name wrong, especially if I can tell they're trying.  But it is so offensive to not even try or ask for help and assume its ok to shorten my name or nickname me.

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(Admittedly I teach small-ish classes capped at 25 but...) I always let students introduce themselves to the class. This is extremely valuable because, for any number of reasons, someone's legal name may not match the name they go by. While this is sometimes the case for international students, I've found it most common with queer and trans students. This keeps me from outing someone who may have transitioned in appearance but not legally, for example. Because of my class size, I only rarely have to circle back with students to figure out their last name for grade/attendance purposes. Same goes for pronouns., I have students share theirs and try to use "they" more often than not, especially when talking about the author(s) of our readings. 

For international students, I will usually ask if they have a strong preference about name. Some want to use an English or Anglicized name. Others have taken the time to teach (and correct!) me on the pronunciation of their name so that I get it right. I have a super common English/American name that is frequently mispronounced, so much so that I have largely given up on correcting people. But it irks me still. When students ask why I'm not one of those "cool" profs that goes by their first name, I tell them it's because basically no one ever pronounces it correctly so I try to limit how often I hear it mispronounced (aka, use my last name instead). 

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On 1/21/2018 at 11:31 PM, rising_star said:

always let students introduce themselves to the class.

I actually just take cardstock and have everyone make nametags. It helps the students learn each others names, it helps me learn their names, and it shows I know who they are when I hand them out at the beginning of each class.

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47 minutes ago, telkanuru said:

I actually just take cardstock and have everyone make nametags. It helps the students learn each others names, it helps me learn their names, and it shows I know who they are when I hand them out at the beginning of each class.

I make everyone participate in every class AND for the first few weeks, students always have to say their name before speaking. My classrooms aren't set up in a circle/semi-circle so it would be impossible for those in the back row to see/read the names of those in the front row. Also, I have a few students with visual impairments which would require people to write their first name in block letters on 1-2 standard sheets of paper for those students to easily read it from various points in the room. Hence having people say their names all the time and encouraging them to use one another's names when referring to what someone else said. YMMV but this is what does and has worked for me.

I think the real key for the OP is to let students tell you what they want to be called and how they want to be referred to. 

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At most schools I've been to, faculty members get pictures of all the students in their classes (from our school ID). And for graduation, they ask us how to phonetically pronounce our names so that the name reader person can say it correctly.

So, I hope for the future, students would be able to enter things like pronouns, name pronunciation, name they want to be called into their student portal and this information would be populated into the class list each semester. Still probably would be a good idea for instructors to ask though, in case that info is outdated or if students are uncomfortable with recording this information into a database. But it would be great to have it standard to ask people about these things so no one needs to feel they are imposing on others.

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1 hour ago, TakeruK said:

At most schools I've been to, faculty members get pictures of all the students in their classes (from our school ID). 

I'm now teaching at my... fifth institution if you count grad school. None of them have ever provided us with photos of the students in our classes. IF the student chooses to upload a photo to the LMS then I get a photo that way. But otherwise? Nope. (Also, photos from school IDs, at least for undergrads, are often their high school portrait which becomes significantly less helpful as they age, change, transition, etc.) My point is that new grad students shouldn't count on this being available and instead should develop their own system.

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Thankfully, two of my institutions have had photos in the LMS, and it makes things a lot easier to study. 

They're a lot more helpful for freshman than seniors, as @rising_star mentions. 

Nametags have never worked well for me, sadly, and most science classes don't have enough discussion that having students give names doesn't help much. I find pairing students into preset groups helps a lot- it lets me learn pairs of names by association as they do group work in class. 

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At my college, people managed to make enough noise and there were enough faculty members sitting on various committees who cared that, as of this year, they are rolling out a preferred first names field and (allegedly) even an audio pronunciation guide field on the student portal. Judging from the graduate school application forms that I've filled out recently, it seems like a fair number of institutions are implementing features that allow people to have preferred first names on file and accessible to instructors who care enough. One of the POIs that contacted me for an informal interview even managed to use my preferred first name when addressing me via email! So, I'm hopeful that sorting out name issues might get easier to deal with in the future. :)

Also, as someone with a rather hard to parse name (I've seen 4/5 of the possible incorrect permutations of the three "words" in my full name), I definitely prefer it when instructors go with the first name I ask them to use. I've gone by my nickname since third grade, so I only ever use my full name on legal documents. It gets awkward when well-intentioned folks try to call me by my full name in person, because I don't even respond to it anymore.

Finally, out of the various methods I've experienced, the method of passing out a sheet with given name, first name, etc. has worked best so far.

Edited by h-bar
Fixing typos.

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Hello,

I often think of the power dynamics and the history that are underlined under these conversations. I've had many Asian friends who had a "English" version of their Chinese name becasue it's just "easier". It makes me think about Eurocentric our world is in North America too. But I still would let people choose whatever name they wanted to be called with, but it gets me thinking a lot.

My parents are immigrants from Haiti. My first name is a French sounding name that is quote common, however, the spelling of it is quite original and hard to remember for most people (in French and in EngIish). I never hesitate to correct people (and even professors) whenever they don't get my name right. I always do it in a polite manner, but still I just have a strong feeling about it. My name is my name and I still feel like people should get the effort to get it right when they write to me or talk to me. 

The worst thing that happened to me is that I got an award a few years ago and my name was mispelled on it. I literally asked for another award with my name spelled right on it. It really bothered me because it's almost like people are being lazy, especially when my name is forever written on an award...  For me, it's just basic respect too. The same situation happened to me when someone from a online media wrote an article about me. They mispelled my name althrough the entire article. And when I asked them to correct my name, they mispelled it again in their revision. At some point, it's almost being unprofessionnal in my opinion. 

Edited by Adelaide9216

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On 2018-01-21 at 11:31 PM, rising_star said:

(Admittedly I teach small-ish classes capped at 25 but...) I always let students introduce themselves to the class. This is extremely valuable because, for any number of reasons, someone's legal name may not match the name they go by. While this is sometimes the case for international students, I've found it most common with queer and trans students. This keeps me from outing someone who may have transitioned in appearance but not legally, for example. Because of my class size, I only rarely have to circle back with students to figure out their last name for grade/attendance purposes. Same goes for pronouns., I have students share theirs and try to use "they" more often than not, especially when talking about the author(s) of our readings. 

For international students, I will usually ask if they have a strong preference about name. Some want to use an English or Anglicized name. Others have taken the time to teach (and correct!) me on the pronunciation of their name so that I get it right. I have a super common English/American name that is frequently mispronounced, so much so that I have largely given up on correcting people. But it irks me still. When students ask why I'm not one of those "cool" profs that goes by their first name, I tell them it's because basically no one ever pronounces it correctly so I try to limit how often I hear it mispronounced (aka, use my last name instead). 

I really like this approach and I see a lot of my professors, especially in the Gender Studies departement do it. If I get to teach one day, I'll do the same thing. I can really see how anxiety provoking it may be for some students, especially trans students and gender non-conforming students to be called by their deadname or the wrong pronouns. 

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Realize that no matter how hard they try, some native English speakers won’t be able to correctly pronounce a non-English name.  My maiden name is French Canadian, and the vast majority of anglophones mispronounce it.  As for me, despite years of intensive German immersion, I still can’t hear the difference between a “u” and a “u umlaut” in German.  My ear and brain simply hear the same sound for those distinct German sounds. On the other hand, when we lived in Germany, the majority of Germans could not pronounce my husband’s name, which features a sound that does not exist in the German language.  So I think it is important to be kind and realize that people are usually trying their best to pronounce a name correctly.  They may just not be able to actually hear, or to pronounce, the correct sounds.  Despite living for many years in Germany, the “u” and “u umlaut” in German still sound exactly the same to me.  Intellectually I know they are different sounds, but I just don’t hear (and can’t pronounce) the difference!  I don’t have problems with the other umlaut vowels, however; it is unique to “u.”

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2 hours ago, RunnerGrad said:

Realize that no matter how hard they try, some native English speakers won’t be able to correctly pronounce a non-English name.  

...

 So I think it is important to be kind and realize that people are usually trying their best to pronounce a name correctly.  They may just not be able to actually hear, or to pronounce, the correct sounds.  

Definitely agree with the "try" part. My last name is very hard for anyone who doesn't speak my first language to pronounce. I don't ever expect anyone to say it right and I won't take offense or get mad at them or think poorly of them if they don't say it right. I only expect them to try and/or place value in addressing me correctly.

However, it's very clear (to me at least) when someone is trying or when someone isn't. I have no problem with people trying and failing to get my name right. I do get annoyed (but probably won't do anything about it) when someone doesn't try and just pretends they are saying my name right. But I do take issue and do something about it if someone takes the attitude of something like, "well I can't pronounce your name, so I'll just call you something else" or "why can't you use a name that's easier for everyone to say". 

For concrete examples, here are ways people have shown me that they care about using my name correctly (I noticed that people do this way more in Canada than they did in the US):

- A conference session chair is about to introduce me but hasn't met me before, she asked if I could tell her how to say my last name. That small act of asking instead of just assuming made me feel a lot more welcome in the community, and it was my very first oral presentation at a conference, so that was nice.

- Someone trying to say my name, realised that they might have said it wrong, and immediately asks me to correct them. 

- Someone who hears me introduce myself and later asks me if I could say my last name again because they want to get it right. Bonus points for the other people who asked me more than once over a period of time because they wanted to be correct. Sometimes it's awkward to ask after you have known someone for awhile, but I am thankful when people get over this and just ask. It's way better for me to repeat myself than to be called the wrong name.

Normally, my response is to first say my actual last name a couple of times. Then I say, I know it's a hard sound to make, so I am also happy to go by <another English sound that's much easier to say>.

And some examples of actions where I thought the other person was disrespectful / wrong about their approach to my name:

- Someone who doesn't even try and SPELLS OUT the letters in my name (????) instead of just asking me how to say it.

- Someone who completely butchers my name and doesn't even ask me how to say my name

- Someone who told me that in the future, I shouldn't tell people my real name and just skip to the easy-to-say-in-English version after I say my usual spiel above

- Someone who suggested using a different more-English-friendly name for work so that people would respect me more (??)

- Someone who asked if I was sure that my pronunciation was right because they have a friend with the same letters in a similar order but their friend has a name that sounds completely different (to clarify: the offensive part was when they assumed my knowledge of my name is less than theirs, it's cool that they like comparing names with similar letters).

Fortunately, the first two cases happen way more than the last 3. 

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