Getting foreign names wrong shows a lack of respect

As someone who anglicised her forename in order to fit in at school, Ann Mroz says that pronouncing foreign names correctly is all about making people feel valued

Getting names wrong shows a lack of respect

I have a confession to make: my name is not really Ann. It’s not even my second name, although it’s close.

My real name is Polish. But when I started school, I wanted an ordinary English name. I wanted to fit in, to be like everyone else. Even at the age of 5, I knew that, although I was lumbered with an unpronounceable surname, I could opt for an easier first name. I went for the simplest, most boring one I could think of and one that no one could tease me about. The worst I got was “Frying-pan Ann”, for some inexplicable reason. But I could cope with that.

I lived – and still live – a strange double life, called by my real name at home by my parents and relatives and “Ann” by everyone else. And, of course, officially, according to my birth certificate, passport and driving licence, I am not Ann. When I am asked for my name, I often hesitate, because I don’t always know. It depends who’s asking.

Identity crisis aside, I was, however, ahead of the game in choosing an English name for myself. It seems that a third of minority ethnic employees have been told to adopt a “Western work name” by their employer.

People with foreign names are being asked to swap them for ones considered to sound more “English” and to be easier for their colleagues to say or spell.

They comply, The Times reported, because they are worried that their career would suffer if they didn’t.

Teachers, especially in primary, must have been baffled when they read this story. They are greeted every day by a wonderful array of names on the register at school. Most learn to pronounce and remember each and every one – it’s part and parcel of the job. Memorisation techniques include visualising names, rhyming and plain old repetition.

Universities, which have a nightmare at graduation ceremonies, have come up with their own methods to ensure students’ names are not mispronounced on their big day. One method, developed by Stanford University in the US and used by many other institutions, is called NameCoach. This involves asking students to make a recording of their name on a website, and this is then rendered into a phonetic form. This gives the announcer a syllable-by-syllable pronunciation.

It’s not just foreign names that can cause trouble. Some more exotic concoctions may raise eyebrows. But it’s important that learning the correct pronunciation happens privately and away from the class.

It’s basic relationship-building. But, more importantly, it’s all about respect. It sets the tone for how pupils treat one another, too. If you take the trouble to learn how to pronounce even the most difficult name, others will follow suit.

And let’s not forget the parents in this. Often, immigrant parents already feel at a disadvantage in a country and culture that is not their own. Saying their name correctly goes a long way to making them feel welcome in school.

It’s so important. A name is the most personal thing about someone. It’s literally their identity. The least any of us can do is to try to learn how to say it properly.

As for me, has an English first name helped me in my career? It’s hard to know. You can get so far in trying to convince people that you’re just like them, but the surname soon gives the game away. I’ve had so many mispronunciations and misspellings of that over the years, but I have never once considered changing it. That’s me, that’s my name, that’s who I am. I say Mroz, the utility companies say Mr Oz. And that’s fine by me: they can send all my bills to the Emerald City.


This article originally appeared in the 31 May 2019 issue under the headline “What’s in a name? Quite a lot – so let’s pronounce it properly”