What’s in a name?

“English” names: language, culture, identity & privilege

I recently moved from South Africa to Vietnam to teach English. I thought I would have a tough time pronouncing my students’ names, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. Elsa, Ben and Anna are all easy to pronounce. They’re also the names of my students. Every child I taught when I arrived had an English name*: a name they chose for themselves that they go by in the English classroom. My worries were unfounded. I had forgotten that I speak English — and so the world adjusts to make me comfortable.

The idea of English names may seem inconsequential at face value. But it’s not. Your name is a reflection of your language, your culture, and your identity**. Firstly, it creates a mutually exclusive idea of English — that it’s all or nothing, and that to speak English well, you must assimilate to all things “English”.

It says that you are not good enough as you are and that you need to change in order to be able to speak English. It says that your cultural identity is only relevant at home and in social settings, and not in the classroom or (because of English being a language of the global political economy) anywhere of importance.

Furthermore, English names mean that English speakers, as usual, can chill. A weird thing about being in Vietnam is that people often apologise to me when they can’t speak English — when I’m the one who’s in Vietnam and can’t speak Vietnamese. My English privilege means I don’t really need to learn anything in another language.

But it can’t be all that bad if these English names are only for in the classroom — right? Probably not. Earlier this year South African black twitter took a stand with #theyearwemispronounceback, promising to give English-speakers the same treatment we give everyone else: “Sorry, I can’t say that — can’t I call you something easier?”. I think that fell on deaf ears. “Ok, um, do you have an English name?” means that English names** move out of the classroom and into the real world. And people’s real names become, “Oh, only my mom calls me that!” and English names become the names people introduce themselves with, until that’s the only name they’re known by.

But everyone has a choice, so shouldn’t people stand up for themselves and refuse to take an English name? Sure, but what if you’re five and all your classmates have English names? And anyway at that age having the option to name yourself after your favourite Frozen character is super exciting. And what if you’re grown up but nearly every English person you meet still gives up on learning your name? Ya, not an easy decision to make.

While the importance of a familiarity with English and the Western values implied within it are no doubt important skills for any child wishing to one day successfully participate in an increasingly globalised English-speaking world, this should not come at the cost of indigenous languages. And while language death and English hegemony is a phenomenon that goes faaar beyond names, it’s important to think about how names fit in with this. As people take on English names and leave their real names behind, languages evolve to take on more and more English.

Carol Benson argues that the cultural alienation experienced by so many second-language learners can be avoided by taking into account both the language and the cultures of the learners. One simple way to do this is to encourage learners’ pride in their cultural and linguistic identities by incorporating, at the very least, the learners’ given names into the ESL classroom.

So basically, by accepting English names we are normalising English hegemony and privilege because we’re only thinking about how it affects what’s here and now. And that needs to stop.

*I don’t know what an “English name” is. English is always borrowing words and most English people have foreign names anyway. What a stupid idea lol.

**This is not something limited to Vietnam; this plays out in different ways in South Africa and many other African countries, all of which are worth investigating in much more detail than what’s been mentioned here.

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