The Lasting Impact of Mispronouncing Students’ Names

It is essential that a teacher pronounces students‘ names correctly. Though this may often be ignored or not taken seriously by some educators, a student’s name is tied to his or her identity. So, it is important to get it right.

While it may be difficult to get the pronunciation of every child’s name right, the attitude of a teacher and effort he or she makes towards learning how to pronounce the child’s name correctly matters so much to the child.

Our names convey powerful messages about our existence. Your identity as an individual is centered around your name. Most names reflect the family culture and belief system. The naming tradition makes up the core part of every culture. A child’s name is one of the first things they learn while growing up.

Some parents and cultures give a name to a child relative to the story surrounding their birth or to honor a family value, but when a child is forced to adopt “Americanized” names or nicknames, the child gradually loses grip with his or her identity, origin, and existence.

Besides the child’s home, one of the places where a child is identified with his or her name is in the school system. Mispronouncing a child’s name repeatedly can have a lasting impact on them. It can make the child lose his or her identity, affect their confidence and negatively impact the child’s academic performance.

Frequent mispronunciation of a students’ name may make them become socially withdrawn and try to hide or fake their identity to fit in, which in the end can cause such students to lose a connection with their family roots.

A 2012 study conducted by Kohli and Solórzano showed that students with unfamiliar names had to deal with their teachers mispronouncing their names constantly. The worst aspect of it is when the teacher laughs at or makes a mockery of the students’ name instead of making a real effort to learn how to pronounce their names correctly.

Negative impacts of mispronouncing a students’ name:

1. Loss of identity

Students of ethnic minorities, immigrants and African-Americans are those mainly affected by the mispronunciation of names. Names hold ancestral and historical significance for many minorities and immigrants. Names bring stories, which students are often forced to adapt to an “Americanized” context.

To avoid constant embarrassment, many of these student’s adopt an  American name which has no true connection with their original name. A good illustration of this is a seventeen-year-old immigrant, Yee Wan from China, who changed her name to “Winnie” to make it easy for her educators to pronounce her name. This suggestion was made by her ESL teacher.

That experience spurred Wan the present president of the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE)  to launch a campaign to promote the correct pronunciation of a child’s name in school irrespective of his or her cultural background.

Yee Wan, the president of NABE, launched the My Name, My Identity  Campaign in collaboration with the Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE) to educate people about the lasting negative impact mispronouncing a child’s name can have on them and make propositions on how such issues can be remedied in schools and communities.

Again, the brother of Kohli dropped his native South Asian name, Sharad (‘shu-rudth’) and changed it to Sharub when he was in his ninth grade. But then, his teachers and classmates felt it was easier to call him Shrub, and that was the name they called him all through his high school forcing him to drop his original name and identity.

Michelle-Thuy Ngoc also dropped the second half of her Vietnamese name to make it more comfortable for others and only answered to Michelle. She eventually went back to her full name.

2. Loss of self-confidence

According to PBS News report, mispronouncing a child’s name can have a lifelong negative impact on them. Rita Kohli, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside reiterates that when a child experiences constant mispronunciation of his or her name by their teachers, they start to build a wall around themselves.

Over time, it’ll start to affect the child’s self-confidence, making them feel like they don’t belong, especially when their teachers make fun of their names and they are laughed at by their fellow students.

The PBS report also recounted an anecdote from a student at a school in Portland, Oregon who skipped her graduation and failed to receive her award because her principal “murdered” her Chinese name on the stage. The student was traumatized because the principal not only mispronounced her name but made a joke of it and attracted the laughter of the audience.

Although it can be difficult to pronounce the name of every student correctly, the teacher should make an effort t. A child may fail to answer the roll call because their name was mispronounced. Such an experience can make a child enter their shell, and become socially withdrawn.

3. Low academic performance

A child’s self-confidence affects their performance in school. A child that lacks self-confidence and feels shamed in the presence of their peers probably won’t perform well academically. Teachers should work hard to promote an inclusive culture in their classroom and the entire school. No child should be ridiculed or made to feel ashamed of their name, their identity or culture.

Santa Clara County Superintendent,  Jon Gundry, was a teacher of middle and high school  English as a second language students for more than a decade. When he was a teacher, he formed a culture of respect by learning the correct pronunciation of all his new students the first day they appeared in the class.

Learning how to pronounce your students’ name correctly is a huge step towards their acculturation. It makes it easy for them to cope in their new school environment.

4. Renders the student implicitly invisible

Carmen Fariña, a native-Spanish speaker during her kindergarten days in Brooklyn, was marked as absent for weeks for failing to respond to her name during roll calls. She didn’t respond because her teacher incorrectly pronounced her name. While the teacher thought that she was being obstinate, the poor child didn’t hear her name being called by the teacher.

As a present chancellor of New York City schools, Fariña drawing from her experience noted in her keynote address to the National Association for Bilingual Education, that mispronouncing a child’s name basically makes the child feel invisible in class.

5. Has a negative emotional and social  impact

Many immigrant students and students from ethnic minorities already must deal with not having a teacher that looks like them in their school. Also, they would rarely find a teacher who speaks the same language as them, and they struggle to learn a curriculum that is entirely different from what they are used to in their native land.

A 2012 study by Rita Kohli and Daniel Solórzano found that mispronouncing a student’s name is one of the hurtful microaggressions that the students can suffer. The study, “Teachers Please Learn Our Names! Racial Microaggressions and the K-12 Classroom,” found many instances of students who were shamed, anxious, or embarrassed because their names were constantly mispronounced in class. This makes them begin to gradually withdraw from their language, cultural origin, and family background.

The case of the native Chinese student in Portland, Oregon-area illustrates it all. As we discussed earlier in this article, the student failed to rise during an honors ceremony because their principal mispronounced their name and laughed over it, making the audience chuckle.

What teachers and fellow students can do to help

 When teachers overlook or downplay the necessity of correctly pronouncing a student’s name, they make the situation worse A teacher may not pronounce a student’s name correctly the first time, but he or she must make a sincere effort to get it right rather than making a joke of it and laughing about the mistake.

Teachers should work to promote an inclusive culture where all students from different cultural background feel like they belong.

Making a mockery of a child’s name affects their self-confidence. Mollie Robertson a math teacher at Iroquois High School in Jefferson County, KY believes it is the responsibility of every educator to encourage fair play and foster respect for all students in their class. She advocates for a safe learning environment for all by starting with the correct pronunciation of her students’ name.

A teacher can help by not laughing when they mispronounce a child’s name. And the students can show they respect their peers by learning to pronounce their names correctly and not laughing when someone gets it wrong.  Instead of laughing, they should help their classmates learn the correct pronunciation.

When teachers take the time to learn how to pronounce their students’ name correctly, they are helping them connect with their origin and helping them to form their true identity.

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