Why it matters when you mispronounce your student’s name

Daily Briefing

Why it matters when you mispronounce your student’s name

Research predicts that the Class of 2025 will be the largest and most diverse group of students on record. For colleges, these changing demographics mean heightened admissions efforts to increase minority enrollment.

But some students—especially minority students—argue that institutions can do more to make underrepresented students feel welcome once they arrive on campus.

One way administrators and faculty can create an inclusive campus environment is to know students’ names and pronounce them correctly, writes Macie Hall, a senior instructional designer at Johns Hopkins University. Great professors are ones who learn how to pronounce every student’s name, according to Michigan State University‘s collection of students’ comments and advice for instructors.

“If [students] encounter teachers who are not taking the time to learn their name or don’t validate who they are, it starts to create this wall,” says Rita Kohli, an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside. This divide may lead students to drop out or struggle academically, Corey Mitchell wrote for Education Week in 2016.

“It matters what you do when you’re in front of a child and struggling with their name,” says Kohli, who co-authored a study on racial microaggressions. “Is it framed as my inability to say someone’s name or is it framed as the student doing something to make your life more difficult?”

When teachers approach a student’s name with frustration or confusion, it can leave a “lasting impact on the way that child sees themselves and their culture,” reads Kohli’s study on microagressions. Educators may unintentionally mock a student’s name by laughing off mispronunciations, making a spectacle of the name, or asking the student to adopt a nickname, she adds.

“If someone mispronounces your name once in high school, you might correct them,” says Kohli. “But if this has been your entire existence in education, what do you do?”

Akanksha Singh has wrestled with this question throughout grade school and college. “Teachers would stumble over my name during roll-call, their tone somewhere between apology and confusion,” Singh writes for Bustle. Every mispronunciation was a reminder “that I wasn’t white, that I was noticeably different,” she writes.

What students wish their professors knew

When Singh started college, she used the clean slate to embrace her name and her culture. “When anyone would say it wrong, I’d shamelessly correct them, watching them struggle through the second K and the combined “ksh” sound. It was as if accepting my name was the first step in accepting being Indian, something I, as a third-culture kid, was finally OK with. I felt real and seen and new,” she explains.

But towards the end of her first year, she introduced herself to a peer who responded with, “Nah, that’s a tough one. How about I call you Connie.” The name later caught on with her peers and even Singh started to use the name Connie. “I remember wondering whether this feeling—one of inadequacy, almost, that I was Akanksha, and not Connie would ever go away,” she writes. It would take years before Singh felt comfortable embracing her name.

“Mispronouncing a student’s name essentially renders that student invisible,” Carmen Fariña, the then-chancellor of New York City Schools said during a keynote address in 2016.

It’s not only English learners and international students who can feel invisible when their names are mispronounced, writes Mitchell. Hawaiian and African-American students have also shared stories of feeling alienated by constant mispronunciations of their name, he adds.

“As educators, we have the power to bring awareness to valuing diversity… so that all of our students will feel included,” says Yee Wan, a director of multilingual education in California.

When educators come across an unfamiliar name, they have an opportunity to build a more inclusive classroom, writes Hall. First, confirm with the student that you’ve pronounced their name correctly and second, determine what name they prefer to use in class, she recommends.

Faculty can also broaden their name vocabulary. Hall points to one reference guide of non-English names. The resource includes naming conventions in a number of languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, and Tagalog. Educators can also play around with web tools that feature audio and text pronunciations of names, she advises (Singh, Bustle, 8/6; Hall, Innovative Instructor Blog, 3/15; Mitchell, Education Week, 5/10/2016).

Related: Inclusion efforts aren’t keeping up with campus diversity. Here’s how you can fix it.

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