Sunday, May 08, 2011

What's in a Name in an ESL class?

I've just read this excellent blog post by Grace Chu-Lin Chang, Behind a name, where she writes about the practice of choosing an English name for English language learners, especially in an English-speaking country and her own story in choosing an English name.          
One’s name is one of the most salient features for one’s identity. Some parents suffer from extraordinary indecisiveness when giving their newborn a wonderfully auspicious and proper name, all with utmost good intentions and expectations. English language learners often have the same experience later in life: how did you get your English name, especially if your mother tongue is not an alphabetic language?    Read Grace's full post...
It reminded me of an activity I use at the beginning of term. I ask students to answer questions such as these:
  • What is your first name?
  • How do you write it in your language 
  • What does it mean in your language?
  • Who gave you your name?
  • Do you have a nickname?
  • Do women or men in your country change their name when they get married?
  • How did you/would you choose a name for your children?
Students write their answers on paper individually, then each tells the story of their name to the whole class, writing their name in their own language on the board and answering questions if there are any.  It has always worked well in our very mixed language and culture background classes as a good 'getting to know you' activity. Here are a few other lesson ideas around the theme of names:
What's in a Name? on TEFL.NET "A fun worksheet on a universal theme - your name. This lesson includes vocabulary built from the base-word  "name" as well as some common phrases and idioms connected with the topic. Fluency is practised through stimulating and personalised discussion questions such as: "What names did/will you choose for your children? Why do you like those names?""
What's in a Name? from TOPICS Online Magazine Several stories from English langauge learners from China, Brazil, Colombia, Yugoslavia, Iran, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, and Indonesia about the origin of their names.    
Upper-Intermediate News: What's In a Name? -  on Heads Up English - A news story about a man in the USA who had to sue the state of California to be able to adopt his wife's name when he married. Includes downloadable lessons for listening, speaking and vocabulary.
I'd like to hear your ideas or other resources for using names in an ESL lesson. These links were contributed by Sean Banville in response to this post (Thanks Sean!):
The Most Unfortunate Names in Britain - A lesson from 
Conversation Questions on Names - A discussion handout on names from ESL
Get A Different Name Day - Handouts, listening and an online activity from ESL Holiday  
UPDATES See below for resources added since I wrote the original blog post.  I've left these in chronological order for when I've added them for anyone coming along later to see what's new.  I might one day organise them by topic, but for now this is easiest... Update June 2012: One of the excellent Guardian Weekly Learning English reading activities covers this topic, and I used it in my class along with the beginning of term activity I outlined above.  The article resulted in a lot of discussion in class and some of the students still mention the poor girl whose parents named her 'Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii' - seriously!
Advanced: New Zealand sees no justice in unusual babies' names How did your students get their names? New Zealand's strict rules on what parents can call their babies is sure to spark debate in class Lesson focus: reading, possessive 's; verbs using -ing form and infinitive with to; class discussion

Update July 2014:

I've just come across this article from NZ that has migrants' comments for and against adopting a new name in a new country - looks like a good one to use in class.
Please call me Bill: how migrants choose their new NZ names
It’s kind of good for the immigrant [to adapt a new name], because they can create a new identity for themselves,” "Many who choose to live in New Zealand consider changing their first name, mostly because the correct pronunciation of many Asian names is troublesome for most Kiwis." "Assimilation and integration also play a part in a person’s decision to take another name, as migrants have a strong desire to fit into society.   One way of being a “Kiwi” is by adopting a name that makes it easier for Kiwis to engage with them, he says.   The desire of being fashionable is another reason for Asians to anglicise names." “When you think of your name, you are thinking of your parents. We don’t give anything to our parents, but they give everything for us.” “People say a nickname or shorten a name, that’s okay. But apart from that, you should not change it because that is your culture. “Your name is according to the culture and the country and everything that is there, and I don’t know why you would deny where you’re from.” “Some Indian people come here and use another name but where they are coming from is part of their name. They are losing something when they change their name.” “For my graduation, I think I’d like to get called my original name, because it’s a piece of honour.”

Update December 2014:

Baby Names Australia 2014 (thanks to Nicki Blake for sharing this via #AusELT)

Update February 2015:

What’s in a name? How do ethnic names fare today after decades of multiculturalism and in a so-called age of super-diversity? (from Language on the Move - Australian focus)
What’s in a Name? These Stellar ESL Activities! A collection of activities from Busy Teacher
Asian Students Using English Names A second-year MA student in Applied Linguistics conducted a survey on Asian students taking English names.
Quick Take: How I Picked My English Name A student answers the question: “Why does almost every Chinese student have an English name and where do you get it from?” on VoA
Why Korean English students have English names A teacher in Korea reflects on this question.
Ways to learn students’ names This related post on TEFLnet might help you, the teacher, remember your students’ names.
Getting-to-Know-You Writing Activity: Using Names ... and learning adjectives.

Update April 2015:

Given Names on ABC Radio National Showcase A series of four radio programs about given names:

Update May 2015:

TEFL Commute Podcast - Episode 3: Names The presenters discuss: Questions to ask students about names; Sir or Miss?; Tips for teachers to remember students’ names; Teaching ‘games’ for names

Update August 2015:

The first thing schools often get wrong for English language learners is their names The seemingly simple step of recording and calling a student by the correct name can have consequences when mistakes happen.

Update September 2015:

Girls called Jack and boys named Sue - language: a feminist guide On the sharp gender differentiation in British first names (via @SophiaKhan4)
It’s Not “Exotic”: Respect The Weight Of My Name On Your Tongue "Respecting a name is respect for that individual." (via @seponymous )
This Year, Give the Gift of Pronunciation - Cult of Pedagogy Podcast "How We Say Our Students’ Names…and Why It Matters"
Innocent misperception: the linguistics of Starbucks name fails - Hopes and Fears blog On speech errors and language change: accidental or goal-oriented?

Update October 2015:

What’s in a name? SBS True Stories podcast What's really in a name? And what happens when you change your name? Hear writer and comedian Cyrus Bezyan grapple with just that question in his signature laconic style.

Update January 2016:

Never have the embarrassment of forgetting a name again on BBC Future Forgetting names is one of our memory’s most common failures – but there are ways to make them stick, says psychologist Tom Stafford. (heard via @cherrymp)
Western names in the classroom: An issue for the ESL profession by Rachel Burke TESOL in Context Vol.11 No. 1 (2001) In this article, the author is concerned with a tendency towards use of English names, particularly but not exclusively in ESL classes, whether adopted of their own volition by new arrivals or assigned by the class teacher. In the latter case, she reflects on what removal of someone's most exclusive badge of identity says about our commitment to cultural diversity. Rather, she seeks the positives in using a student's given name(s). [Author abstract, ed]

Update March 2016:

Learning Names (by Marc Helgesen) - blog post on Teaching Village Describes a simple system for remembering student names using name cards and self-introductions.

Update April 2016:

Do women take their husband’s surname after marriage because of biology? by Beatrice Alba (The Conversation, 7 April 2016) ... and related ...
What's in a Surname? Beatrice Alba interviewed on ABC Radio National Afternoons, 27 April 2016)
Why I’m keeping my Vietnamese surname when I marry by Sheila Pham (Peril, 2012) (Don’t miss the comments at the end - interesting reading) [Thanks to Lidya Blue for this link]
Taking on an English name by Eurasian Sensation (Peril, 2012)
The name and the face by Lia Incognita (Overland, 2012) An essay on much more than just names.
The Name Game: Yours or Ours, but not Mine by jodi sh doff  (shemustchallenge)

Update June 2016:

Adopting an English Name (Uncharted Tesol The blog from The New School TESOL community, May 2016) On the reasons why students from China adopt an English name.
Peter, Paul, Kylie … David! Why we forget family members' names (The Conversation, May 2016) "The finding that we often mix up names that are semantically and phonetically related, rather than at random, gives insights into the way our memories for names are organised in the brain."
Getting names right is more important than you think (ABC Radio National, June 2016). Radio piece on a US program (see next link) which "encourages teachers to make an effort to get students' names right, and gives students the impetus to discover the origins of their own names."
My Name My Identity - Pledge to pronounce students' names correctly. It's that simple. Lots of resources here for names: "...resources are intended for individuals to use, with the global competence lens, while sharing the importance of respecting others’ names and identities with others."

Update July 2016:

Pronouncing ELs’ Names Correctly (TESOL Blog, 14 July 2016) Short blog post by US teacher Judie Haynes. Includes links to other excellent resources. (heard via @TESOLatMQ)

Update August 2016:

10 Ways to Remember Your Students' Names (by Mark Chapman of

Update September 2016:

Baby name regret: A guide for living with a unique name (ABC News, 5 Sept 2016)  
A 16-year-old British girl earns £48,000 helping Chinese people name their babies (BBC Newsbeat, 7 Sept 2016) "In China it is considered important to have an English name for future study or business with the UK. 'Special Name' requires the user to pick five of the 12 personality traits which they most hope their baby will grow into. In China they name their child based on the elements and Beau wanted a similarity between how they pick their Chinese name and how they pick their English name." 
The Lasting Impact of Mispronouncing Students’ Names (neaToday, 1 Sept 2016)

Update October 2016:

How to change your name - SBS Settlement Guide
A good overview of why some migrants choose to change their name,
5 steps to change your name - SBS Settlement Guide
And a guide on how to change your name
Nicknames - an episode of the A word in your ear podcast (ABC Brisbane)
Nicknames are names which pick up some characteristic of the person and usually have no link to the sounds of the original.
 Does anyone have any other new lesson ideas on this topic? Please add in the comments below.  __


Sean Banville said...

Hi Lesley,
Here are a few more resources:
"The Most Unfortunate Names in Britain" - from -

A discussion handout on names from ESL -

Handouts, listening and an online activity on "Get A Different Name Day" from ESL Holiday -

Hope you like them :-)


Lesley said...

Wonderful! Thanks Sean.

naomi epstein - editor said...

I also believe in the power of names as a great way to begin the year.
I write on the board:
Do you know what your name means?
We look at each student's name, what it means in Hebrew and what is the English translation of that word (even though we don't translate names).Each student also explains, if they know, why their parents chose that name.
They enjoy and I remember all the new names easily because it is in context!

Lesley said...

Yes, Naomi, an activity like this with a new class also has the advantage of helping me to learn and remember the names of students.

Deb Frazier said...

Great information! Thanks for Sharing. Naomi I like the name experience for opening the year. I have such difficulty with names! I so respect the value of a person's name and so want to get it right the first time!

TEFL World Wiki said...

There's an interesting article on it here: Student Names in English

Essentially it points out that with names being highly personal, changing a students name can sometimes lead to problems. At one extreme it smacks of cultural imperialism to arbitrarily give your students names; but on the other hand some students love it!

Anonymous said...

Hi Lesley
I LOVE your blog...and the great ideas coming through. Talking about names is such a great activity. Not only do we find out so much about our students' identity but also so much about their culture. Used at the beginning of a course it can immediately set a tone of respect and interest in a whole person (which of course also includes their history). Being able to say, "I was given this name because it was my grandmother's" or "...because it means my language" can act to help validate a person's self-worth - especially in a language class where so much of a student's identity and feelings of self worth can be lost by their inability to express themselves.

Lesley said...

Respect, interest, identity, self-worth - says it all, Tina - there's A LOT in a name in an ESL class! Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

Lesley said...

TEFL World Wiki,
Thanks for the link.
I can't imagine 'giving' students English names, but many of our students want English names and choose their own.

Lesley said...

The link to Student Names in English from TEFLWorldWiki above seems to be broken - I think it is now here: Student Names in English