By Gwenllian Jones, Project Manager at Wolfestone

One of the most difficult and frustrating things for a student planning a trip abroad is how to deal with the pronunciation of their name within the host country. As a recent graduate in Modern languages who embarked on the long-awaited ERASMUS year abroad, I had the difficulty of introducing my traditional Welsh name, ‘Gwenllian’ to various nationalities.

Pronouncing Welsh

Even in my own country the double ‘L’ can be problematic. It usually causes an overcompensation of spit which consequently threatens to leave whoever you’re talking to being drenched in saliva if you over exert yourself whilst trying to pronounce this wondrous consonant.

To get past this difficulty I just introduced myself as the shortened ‘Gwen’ which did help a lot, though is unfortunately quite similar to the masculine Spanish name ‘Juan’ to the Spanish ear which did cause a few odd looks on introduction. However the problem would arise again when people wanted to add me on Facebook (the communication haven of Erasmus students) as here I am registered under my full name again.

It’s no wonder 11,287 individuals have decided to join the ‘If you can’t pronounce my name, STOP making stupid attempts’ Facebook Group.

What causes difficulty in name pronunciation?

A Chinese person speaking

The crux of the problem lies in the simple fact that each language has different sounds and tones, and the further away two languages are from each other, the more of a struggle it will be to imitate the sounds within the other. Let’s take English and Chinese for example. Chinese is a very tonal language, where the slightest change in tone can change the significance and meaning of a word, and its phonemes are rather difficult for an English speaking native to pronounce. This is why so many international Chinese students choose to change their name to a more Western sounding one when visiting our schools and universities.

Moreover, some phonetic sounds prove incredibly difficult to imitate if you do not learn them from birth. The rolling ‘r’s of Italian, the tonal sounds of many of the East Asian languages, even the clicking noises of the Xhosa African language can prove very difficult, near on impossible for many non-natives to learn.

The Navajo language of the Native American Navajo tribe is a prime example of a language being used due to the difficulty in deciphering its sounds. During the Second World War the Japanese were left baffled by the tones and sounds of this ‘code’ – used by the United States Marine Corps when transferring secretive messages along the airwaves. They never managed to decipher it due to its complexity. It’s no wonder really when a long phrase such as chidí naaʼnaʼí beeʼeldǫǫhtsoh bikááʼ dah naaznilígíí simply means “army tank”.

Is changing names a valid option?

Bulldog Winston Churchill

So, should the foreign student choose to change their name to fit in with the new culture, or should they stick to their roots, even if this threatens the possibility of fully immersing themselves? Should they choose to put up with mutilated pronunciations of their names by us westerners?  After all, Winston Churchill did once famously say;

“it is the inalienable right of every Englishman to pronounce foreign words exactly as he pleases”?

I personally believe that there is a fine line between choosing to give up your identity and choosing to immerse yourself within a new one. Many international students believe that having a name that is difficult to pronounce and remember hinders them from being able to assimilate fully into a new culture and worry that for this reason they might not be seen as part of the community. Some international students are therefore willing to change their names so that they can be more easily identifiable by their peers.

One of the downsides to this is that not only does it take away a part of their identity, but also takes away the opportunity for the natives of their host country to learn about a different culture and to accept and value the differences between the languages.

It should be a personal choice whether you change your name or not, and no-one should feel pressured to change the identity you’ve lived with from birth. I did not choose to make my name more ‘spanishy’, nevertheless I can see the attraction of taking the opportunity of creating a completely new identity for yourself and taking on a traditional name of the country you are visiting.

Why not become the new Beyonce Zhang or Juanita Jones!

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  • Hamidou

    Could you pronounce my last name ‘Ouedraogo’ correctly? …Hard, isn’t it? That’s the burden my friends in England and my teachers and classmates in USA experienced some time ago. I recommended them to simply call me ‘Hamidou’…easier to pronounce than my last name.

    When I taught English as a Foreign Language to students here in Burkina Faso – both children and adults – I used to encourage them to choose a name that sounded ‘English’ and use it as theirs during my classes. Everybody seemed to like it and I saw all kinds of names on paper boards on theirs desks. Some even came up with names I had never heard before – some borrowed movie stars’ names and others simply looked for theirs in a dictionary. It was a motivation for them. But this change in names was only valid for English classes. That allowed them to embody another personality and take an active part to the class. They would come back their real self when the bell goes off…

  • Mari

    My full name is Mariagrazia and I first moved to Wales as a student 6 years ago. Apparently “Mariagrazia” is far “too long” to remember/pronounce so I took the decision to shorten it to “Mari” – which is the Welsh version of the name Maria – to make things easier for me and everyone else. I have to say that this hasn’t really help that much as people still struggle with this shorter version, especially when writing to me. I received many an email addressed to the ever-present Marie, but also Maria, Mary, and even Marrie, Mare and MARIO! I should have gone for “Mary”!

  • An interesting article that raises many questions and one I can identify with from personal experience.

    It is hard to believe that even Greeks have difficulty saying my first name Nigel. A problem I experienced many years ago whilst on holiday in the Peloponnese.

    The solution was to default to my middle name so everyone called me Thomas “a good Greek name”. A solution I was happy with as it is a recurring name in every generation of my family since 1640.

    The converse was a different case as I spent time getting to grips with Greek pronunciations. Luckily, as a Welsh speaker, it is not difficult to roll my r’s and repeat the inflections that come with so many languages, a problem that English speaking people have when speaking different languages.

    The issue that I have come across is the accents that you pick up when learning by rote. You invariably pick up the accent of the speaker. I have a passable Parisian accent when speaking in French and if you listen to people from Scandinavia. You can tell where they learnt their English by their accent, either crisp BBC English or a drawn out American accent because they chose to go to the States for their education.

    The prospect of adopting a new identity with the change of your name to make it easier for those around you to address you has interesting connotations.

    What would you like to be called?

    Kind regards

    Nigel