For an English teacher teaching English in the UK and in Europe, I have a surprisingly non-English-sounding name.
An ex-colleague kept her English maiden name after marrying her Turkish husband, claiming that having a Turkish surname would make it hard for her to gain recognition as an English teacher.
Another colleague was convinced that I would have problems getting work writing in the TEFL industry because publishers engaging a writer from the UK would want an English-sounding name on the cover of their coursebook. And my name doesn’t exactly scream out ‘Native Speaker of English’.
But I have stuck with my Chinese name through it all. That is not to say that I haven’t wondered if I should have used my Christian name.
Yes, I actually have an English name. Like many Singaporeans, my English name was given to me by my parents when I was born, but used only as a nickname and not officially recorded on my birth certificate or on my identity card. (And yes, I’m going to make you read this article to the end before I reveal my English name.)
My English name was the name I went by for most of my childhood years and the name all my friends and family called me. But an anger started brewing inside of me when I went to secondary school.
The secondary school I went to was a missionary school that was mostly attended by girls who were proud to call themselves ‘bananas’ (yellow on the outside, white on the inside!). They worshipped Tom Cruise and Brook Shields, watched only American and British TV programmes, listened to Pet Shop Boys and NKOTB, read Archie comics and ‘Sweet Valley High’ American romance novels. They sneered at all things Chinese and made a show of their yawning and dozing throughout our Chinese language class (a second language, in our case Chinese, was a compulsory subject in the curriculum).
As a teenager on a journey exploring my identity, I found this behaviour confusing, disturbing and even annoying. And in resisting the urge to conform, I rebelled and went the other way.
I started to listen to Chinese music, read Chinese fiction, watched Chinese TV programmes, joined the Chinese poetry and drama society at school, and began paying attention during Chinese lessons. I made no effort to hide my newfound enthusiasm, and perhaps some might say I was asking for it.
Because that was when the bullying started.
The girls would surround me at break time and toss my Chinese book around the circle, jeering, cursing and swearing at me. A classmate spat at me and called me every derogatory term for a Chinese person that you could think of.
I was angry and could not understand why someone would hate their own heritage so much that they would take it out on someone who was conversely intrigued by it.
When my parents got wind of the bullying, they decided it was time for a school transfer.
And I decided it was time for me to drop my English name.
I reasoned, ‘If an English person does not feel the need to have a Chinese name, why should I feel the need to have an English one?’
From that day on, I vowed that I would introduce myself as Chia Suan (or Jiaxuan, the Chinese pronunciation of my name). I made my parents and all my relatives promise to never call me by my English name again, and corrected them again and again until they got it right. I am Chinese and would not be made to feel ashamed of it.
So when Chinese or Korean students tell me to call them by their English names because they figured it’d be easier for us ‘Westerners’ to pronounce and remember, I feel extremely sad.
In the cases where students have picked their own English name, one could argue that it is the personal choice of the student to take on an English name, and perhaps even an English identity. But when I hear that they were ‘assigned’ an English name by a previous English teacher, it makes me feel extremely uncomfortable.
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to pose the following question on Twitter and on Facebook.
Have you ever had students who ask you to call them by their English name instead of their birth name? Where are they from and why do they do it?
The response has been overwhelming.
There seems to be general consensus that it is usually the Chinese and the Korean students that offer to be called by their English name. Interestingly, as Ken Lackman mentions on Facebook and Patrick Andrews on Twitter, although English names seem common with their Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese students, none of their Japanese students have English names.
Not surprisingly, one of the most common reasons for learners adopting English names is the perceived difficulty that their Western teachers might have in pronouncing and remembering their birth names.
As Clacker Clacks on Facebook says, it is almost ‘a willing subjugation to the linguistic imperialists before even giving us a chance to mess up’. Emma-Louisa Mutter on the same Facebook thread voices her sympathy for students who consistently get their names pronounced wrongly and opt to choose an alternative English name but admits that she is a lot less comfortable with English teachers choosing English names on behalf of their students.
While many might shout ‘cultural imperialism’, there are, however, several valid arguments for English learners adopting an English name.
Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis states that negative emotions like anxiety and self-doubt can interfere with second language learning, and by providing a low-anxiety safe learning environment, we can lower the affective filter and thus promote effective learning (Krashen, 2003).
In 1979, Georgi Losanov promoted a method of teaching called Suggestopedia (now known as Desuggestopedia) that involved creating a comfortable environment where students can be liberated from the negativity associated with learning. One of the ways that Losanov proposes such liberation can occur is by giving students new identities so as to help them break free from their bad language learning experiences in the past.
These new names and identities that students take on can help them to overcome whatever embarrassment and shyness they might feel when speaking English, and offer them the freedom to make mistakes, put on accents, speak in as affected a way as they choose, and have fun with the language.
Karen Hewell, a teacher who has taught in Vietnam, comments on the Facebook thread that in a country where speech and personality are readily censored and controlled, the ability to become another person in the English class is a big thing.
David Graddol, in the same Facebook thread, suggests that in Hong Kong where most young people are given an English name at birth, perhaps some might find it more appropriate to use their English names in English-speaking contexts, while others might find the use of their birth names a bit too intimate in certain situations.
Lizzie Pinard offers her personal view in her blog about her experience as an Italian beginner and her want for an Italian identity to help with her language learning. Meanwhile, Ken Lackman echoes her sentiment stating in the Facebook thread that he felt a sense of belonging when called by a Czech-version of his name whilst living in Prague.
As I read Korea-based teacher Michael Griffin’s eloquent blogpost about his thoughts on his students’ English names, I cannot deny the fact that every teacher has their own views and opinions on the matter, and every student has their own reasons for the names they have chosen to go by. It is therefore important for us teachers to, on one hand, show a willingness to learn to pronounce their birth names, but also to show respect for the personal choice of the student.
As for my personal choice, I know that Sharon Chong is a much catchier name, but I’d really prefer if you could make an effort to remember that my name is Chia Suan Chong.
Krashen, S. (2003). Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London.