Names represent culture, heritage, and identity. That’s why pronouncing them correctly is so important.
The system of names has a long history. Names can hold a great deal of meaning and are symbolic of heritage, culture, religion, and personal identity.
Australia is a multicultural society. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data shows that, in 2020, 29.8% of the country’s population was born overseas and there were 7.6 million migrants living in Australia.
The top 10 countries of birth for immigrants in 2020 included India, China, Philippines, Vietnam, South Africa, Italy, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. It is unsurprising, then, that people from other countries will have names that are uncommon and, for some, may be difficult to pronounce.
When foreign names are inadvertently, or deliberately, mispronounced … it’s considered a microaggression.
Why is it bad when foreign names are inadvertently, or deliberately, mispronounced? Firstly, it is a disheartening and negative experience for the person whose name is mispronounced. Secondly, it’s considered a microaggression.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a microaggression as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expressed a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalised group (such as a racial minority)”.
Examples of name-based microaggressions include assigning someone an unwanted nickname, making assumptions about an individual because of their name, and teasing due to cultural aspects of a name.
Microaggressions have been linked to psychological and physical harm. Importantly, microaggressions can be subtle and may be present whether the person they are directed to perceives them or not.
Why are some names pronounceable and others not? Everyone knows how to say Tchaikovsky, Michelangelo, or Navratilova. Consider the names of some of our state politicians: Berejiklian, Xenophon, Plibersek, Palaszczuk. No one seems to have difficulty pronouncing these names.
Yet, former Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Thinethavone ‘Tim’ Soutphommasane (pronounced soot-POM-ə-sahn) was publicly ridiculed by the likes of media commentators Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones because of his ‘unpronounceable’ name.
In 2016, Soutphommasane told the Australian Financial Review that, “If someone says to me they’re not even going to try to pronounce my name, that doesn’t necessarily send a good signal. It says that they’re not even bothered to treat me with respect.”
SBS presenter Lucy Zelić faced criticism from viewers over her pronunciation of players’ names during the 2018 FIFA World Cup. For Zelić, it was about respecting the culture of the players. She was backed up by her co-presenter, Craig Foster, who stressed that linguistic skills were important when living in a multicultural country like Australia.
Teachers mispronouncing students’ names has a negative impact on social and emotional wellbeing, including self-perception.
Pronouncing children’s names correctly is also, if not more, important. A US study found that teachers mispronouncing students’ names has a negative impact on social and emotional wellbeing, including self-perception.
It comes down to simple respect. Mispronouncing, or not even attempting to pronounce someone’s name correctly tells them that it is so foreign it’s not worthy of effort or respect.
Reactions like this often cause those from other countries to Anglicise their names.
A 2018 US study found that White Americans were equally likely to help White and Asian immigrants with Anglicised names but less likely to help Asian immigrants with original ethnic names.
To further illustrate the point, in 2015, at the age of 16, UK citizen Beau Jessup created Special Name, a website that gives Chinese babies English names. The first 162,000 consultations were free, after which Jessup charged $1 per name. By 19, she’d made more than $570,000 from the website.
While it might make life easier for someone instead of going by Liu, Zhang, Huang or Zhao, is this type of service necessary?
Ruchika Tulshyan would say that it is not. As the founder of Candour, she advises companies on diversity, equity, and inclusivity. Also, her name has been mispronounced her whole life.
She went by ‘Rachel’ until recently, when she started speaking up and correcting people, including friends who had mispronounced her name for years.
Pronouncing someone’s name correctly is a way to combat racism and practice allyship.
For Tulshyan, pronouncing someone’s name correctly is a way to combat racism and practice allyship. It’s more than common courtesy, it’s an important effort at inclusivity, that emphasises psychological safety and belonging.
There are ways to ensure that everyone feels included. Here are some tips for learning how to pronounce someone’s name correctly:
- Ask the person to pronounce it – and actively listen.
- Don’t make it a big deal. For example, don’t ask ‘Where does that name come from?’ Chances are the person has had to answer that question many times before.
- Observe and practice. Make an effort to hear how someone pronounces their name to other people. Write a note on how to pronounce it.
- It’s ok to ask, ‘Remind me of your name again’.
- Apologise when you get it wrong as soon as you realise.
- Be an ally. If someone else is mispronouncing the person’s name, gently correct them.
- Don’t be arrogant or flippant. Don’t say ‘I’ll never get it right; can I call you another name?’
For the person whose name is mispronounced:
- Consider having a phonetic pronunciation.
- Correct people. This can be awkward. Avoiding correcting people is often a survival strategy or coping mechanism to fit in but correcting them is a matter of self-worth. It’s never too late to correct someone. Say something direct like, ‘I wanted to quickly say that my name is pronounced …’.
As a society and as individuals, we are cautious of the ‘other’, of things we don’t understand. But as they become more common, we grow to understand and accept diversity and multiculturalism. Some names are inevitably going to be difficult to pronounce. The point is that an effort is made to get it right.
To use that well-worn proverb: practice makes perfect.