While working in the journalism office last week, my boss asked me to make a list of a few common sounds in Chinese names that professors might find hard to pronounce. He was considering giving professors a short Chinese lesson at their weekly meeting. He studied Mandarin in college and knows native English speakers often find pronouncing Chinese words difficult.
When I started working in the department last semester, he asked all front desk assistants to send him a brief email introducing ourselves to the faculty. On the first day, I remember a professor stopping by my desk to ask how to pronounce my name.
I told him he could call me Ziggy, but he insisted I tell him my real name. I complied, but then he insisted I remind him of my name whenever I see him so he doesn’t get it wrong and ended the interaction with a promise to get it right someday.
After that interaction, I realized everyone’s interest in pronouncing my name correctly. One of my journalism professors even felt bad for not calling me by my real name, so she recorded the pronunciation of it on her phone to study it.
So why is Mandarin hard for those who speak Western languages? Chinese names spelled out using the English alphabet are called pinyin (pīn yīn), which means “spelled sounds.” Pinyin is difficult to many English speakers because it’s formed by clusters of letters––called initials and finals––and not individual consonant and vowel sounds. For example, my family name is Wang. W is the initial, pronounced as (w), and ANG together is the final, pronounced as (aŋ), instead of /æŋ/. Both pinyin and English use all 26 letters, but the pronunciations differ. In English, Q sounds like /k/, but in Chinese it almost sounds like /ch/.
I know everyone I meet will not have the same interest in learning to say my name correctly, but some of the comments I hear when professors encounter non-traditional Western names makes me wonder if they are willing to learn them at all.
I often hear phrases such as, “I’m going to get this wrong” and “correct me if I’m wrong” when professors take attendance, but I feel that these phrases are excuses. They are telling someone that their name is difficult and unusual, and it’s okay for people to say it wrong. It also draws attention away from the rest of class by pointing out one individual.
English is not my first language, but I never tell people I’m unwilling to learn the pronunciation of words I don’t know—not only because I chose to study in an English-speaking country but I also respect its culture. I never assume the meaning or pronunciation of words I don’t know. Instead of giving excuses and automatically assuming I’m going to mispronounce an unfamiliar word, I ask. I encounter difficult Spanish and European names when I meet new people at Emerson, and I practice them until I get them right.
I’m not advocating for everyone to learn a new language to pronounce students’ names right. I’m asking for effort when native English speakers comes across a word or name they don’t know. It means a lot if you ask for the pronunciation and try to say it a few times. If you still don’t get it, it’s okay to ask again.
When professors call on fellow Chinese students in class for the first time, I always hope those students will correct the professor’s pronunciation of their name. Yet I often see them raise their hand and give their English name. Sometimes I don’t correct professors because I feel it’s a waste of time since most professors never intended to learn my name anyway.
An old Chinese proverb states it’s admirable if you’re willing to learn from those beneath you. I believe everyone should have more curiosity and willingness to ask for help when they are unsure of words and names from other languages. I also hope professors will spend more time before classes familiarizing themselves with names they can’t pronounce to make roll call a less painful experience for all of us. Students should also have the confidence to speak up when their names are pronounced wrong. As Emerson admits more and more international students, we must create a more friendly, accepting environment so students of different cultures don’t feel ostracized.