3 easy ways to pronounce difficult ESL names

While many ESL students use an “English/Western” name, you may find yourself with a group of learners with names that are not familiar to you and difficult to say. Here are three easy ways for online English teachers to pronounce pronounce difficult ESL names so that you’ll be saying “秀英”, “براهيم‎” and “สมชาย” correctly in no time.  

Preface: Before we start, if your students are old enough and have the language ability, I highly encourage you to ask them their preferred name. Some students like using an “English/Western” name, while others prefer it when you call them by their real name. The goal is respect and effective pedagogy.

Photo by Agung Pandit Wiguna from Pexels.

Pronounce difficult ESL student names:

In Australia, I have a really common name (Kate). In fact, it is so common that I remember at one time having knowing five girls at my school with variations of the same name and growing up, no-one ever mispronounced it… until I began teaching English in Latin America. I quickly realised that there was no equivalent sound in Spanish, so anyone reading my name or meeting me for the first time would usually say Katé (car-tay). I would then politely correct them, they would say it accurately and we would move on quickly. Yet enough people either couldn’t (or couldn’t be bothered to) say it right, that after a while I relented and began responding to my ‘new’ name. Even so, it was always a little annoying. In the early stages, I too struggled with pronouncing some of my student’s names but I always made an effort to keep trying until I got it right. This habit followed me into my online teaching career and it’s one of most valuable lessons I’ve learned from living abroad. 

"A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language."

Dale Carnegie.

So, how can we pronounce new or ‘foreign’ names?

1. Encourage students to introduce themselves and each other.

The aim is to try to hear the student’s name pronounced multiple times, so that you can then pronounce it correctly. You can do this in a few ways:

  • The most obvious way is to simply ask the student to introduce themselves. Ask them to repeat their name and clarify that you are saying it correctly. Don’t be afraid to do this a few times but if you are still having problems, move on and don’t get too focused on names you cannot pronounce and make the student feel awkward.
  • Write down a phonetic version of the student’s name as it sounds to you. I always make a list of the students and then write down how their name sounds to me, e.g. hye jung (I wrote: HEY-JONG). It’s often not perfect but helps move you closer.
  • Ask students to write their name in the chat section (if possible) for future reference or to use online tools (below).
  • “Name + favourite thing” game. Say your name, followed by your favourite colour/food/animal etc. Ask all the students, one by one, to say their own name and their favourite thing (or age, for basic learners). Then, begin to ask students information about the others. Repeat a few times during the introduction stage and adapt to the topic of the class. You can do this again during the first class (or every class as needed) by changing the thing and asking the students again, e.g:

    “Kate, who likes x?”
    “X, who likes Y?”
    “Y, who likes F?”
    and so on….

    The idea is to hear names said by multiple people, multiple times. Some students have strong accents and hearing their name said by another person might help you. Of course, other students might also get the name wrong but more often than not names are common in a particular country and students are familiar with the pronounciation (well, more than you are anyway!).

  • Screen record the screen during introductions (Mac, Windows). This way, you can go back and review the names again after the class.

2. Ask someone to help you.

If you have any kind of regular contact with your company, make a list of names that you might be having difficulty with and ask a staff member to help you pronounce them. My experience has been that people are usually really happy to share their language and culture and it shows that you’re putting in a little extra effort. If you know anyone from that country (or speaks that language fluently), you could reach out to them as well.

3. Use technology.

If you’re still having problems pronouncing student names, you can use tools to help, such as nameshouts.com. a site that have over 360,000 names in Mandarin, Spanish, French, Hindi, Greek, Arabic, Japanese, Russian and more. You can search for up to 50 names a month, spoken by native speakers, for free.

Another free site is pronouncenames.com. While not as comprehensive as Name Shouts, it’s a great option if you’ve already used up your 50 names and are unable or unwilling to pay for a subscription. If all else fails, you can try Google Translate but as anyone who has used that service before, results vary.

Conclusion

Of course, there are many factors that make it a little more difficult to learn and remember student names online (only seeing students for a limited period, age etc.) but when possible, it is worth the time and effort. Not only does it show respect and care but it also helps keep them engaged with the lesson. A 2017 study on the importance of students perceiving that an instructor knows their name can be best summarised by the following quote: “I know there are close to 200 kids in this class and I’m not in any way a top student or someone special, but I sure felt like I was when the instructor knew my name.”

Although it takes a little extra time and can be uncomfortable, unless you’ve been repeatedly called by name that isn’t your own, you may not understand how much it can mean for someone to make the effort to say your name correctly. Ask your students what they want to be called, try a combination of the above tips and ultimately, just give it your best try. Even if you don’t get it exactly right, your students will respond to the effort.

Do you think pronouncing student’s names correctly is important?
What tips and tricks do you use? Comment below.

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About the Author:

Kate (GradCertEd (TESOL)) studied a TESOL certificate in 2010 and has been teaching English ever since, tutoring ‘freelance’ for many years before starting an independent teaching business. She began Teach English Online to support Australians and New Zealanders to, well… succeed teaching English online. Whether you are just starting out, want to apply to one of the 300+ global companies or build your own small independent teaching business, she can help.

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