When a child starts school, often their name is the first piece of information they share about themselves. Our name is something that we have carried with us since birth, it was first pronounced by our main carers and it carries meaning and a sense of identity. In many classes around the country children have names that were chosen by their family because of the linguistic and cultural ties they want to maintain. Some parents might want to choose a name in Irish and start researching a spelling that is the closest to the original or less anglicised version, others might want to honour a dear family member who lives in Argentina, others might follow the Nigerian tradition of giving names that carry meaning and wishes for the child.
It is important for teachers to remember that each name, irrespective of origin, pronunciation or meaning, is a significant marker of the child’s identity. Diminishing its value, mispronouncing it or dismissing the full name suggesting an abbreviation make children doubt the value of their identity and their heritage.
It's OK to ask
Of course, we don’t all know the pronunciation of names originated in Wales, Somalia and Kazakhstan, but asking the child or the parents how THEY pronounce it is the first step. People don’t normally get offended if they are asked how to pronounce their name, if that is followed by an actual attempt at saying it or spelling it properly. What might upset people is being asked and then ignored or be told “I can’t say it, sorry”. This behaviour often makes children (and adults) change their names or abbreviate them to avoid having to face other people’s reaction.
Teachers are often asking questions, so why not spend time learning about each other’s names, why they were given, what they mean and whether they can be written in another writing system (for example in Arabic or Russian). Showing interest in a child’s name means showing interest in the child, so of course it is OK to ask.
Spelling vs Pronunciation
Sometimes what surprises us is to see a name written down and later hear it pronounced very differently from what we expected. This goes for many Irish names, like Caoimhe or Tadhg. Of course, someone who speaks Irish can easily pronounce them and find the patterns, but for somebody who is new to Irish the links between spelling and pronunciation might initially be surprising. This can immediately give a feeling that these are “hard names”, when in fact they are not. We might perceive them as hard because we think that we will struggle to associate the spelling with the pronunciation.
To get started, write down the name as it is spelled, and then you can write it phonetically next to it. Try to make your “phonetic transcription” as close as possible to how the child says the name, and break it down into small chunks so you learn to pronounce each chunk and then put them together.
Practice makes perfect
Forget the word “impossible”! Sometimes we think that some names are just impossible to pronounce, but if a child can say it, why can’t we? Of course, the expectation is not that you will say ” Khaleel ” in a true Lebanese Arabic pronunciation from day one, but why not give it a try! Get the children to record the pronunciation of their name and play it to the class so that everyone learns to say all names. You will be able to use these recordings to practice yourself.
Is it really worth the effort?
As a teacher, you make choices every day. If your choice is to make children feel loved, welcome and safe, learning to say their name is a good starting point. Hearing their name pronounced correctly makes children feel valued, and makes them comfortable with their identity. Parents will also feel that their child is welcome for who they are and that their heritage is being appreciated.