When I was a student abroad in Valencia, Spain, I had a classmate named Craig. It’s a common enough name in the U.S., but it’s not a name that transfers seamlessly to Spanish, nor does it have a native equivalent. Everywhere he went, the vowels got their expected measure and were pronounced as in “eye,” and most Spaniards had no idea what to do with the “g,” since a word-final “g” is nonexistent in Castilian Spanish. In Valencian, however, (which is a variety of Catalan), a word-final “g” is pronounced as an English “j.” So for the duration of the year, he was inevitably dubbed either Cry, or–I don’t even know how to spell it–Crahydge. He vehemently schooled Spaniards on the proper pronunciation, and disliked it when our classmates knowingly, jokingly, mispronounced his name. Many of his friends told him to “Lighten up,” or “Just deal with it,” because we were in Spain now, and “it’d be so much easier” to just accept this new version of himself.
Admittedly, Crahydge is one of the most unappealing made-up words I’ve ever encountered, so I wouldn’t want it as my name, either. (And admittedly, the only change my name undergoes in a foreign language is a flapped “r,” so it stays beautiful, and recognizable.) But for Craig, there was insult added to the injury of an ugly set of sounds. For him, he was Craig, pronounced Krehg, and it was his unequivocal identity. Any other pronunciation alienated him from himself.
It’s easy to get names wrong when they’re not native to the language of the environment. I’ve talked about that before. I have a few Chinese coworkers, and I still get nervous when I have to say their names in their presence, because I’m not sure if I’m doing it right. But names are part and parcel with identity, and flagrant mispronunciation makes the owner of the name feel like a stranger in their own skin. Denise Soler Cox writes about her experience having her maiden name go from “sol-EHR” as a child, to “SO-ler” as an adolescent, and the unspoken agreement in her family to just let it happen. It felt wrong to her for years, and going from a mispronounced maiden name to an American married name felt like a skip and a jump to abandoning her Latina heritage completely. Hers is just one story, but I wonder how characteristic it is for the millions of English Learners in the US.
If ELD teachers are my audience, I’m preaching to the choir in saying that we need to be sensitive to maintaining the authenticity of our students’ culture and language. But few things are as validating to a student as hearing your name pronounced properly in a place where you’re resigned to being a different version of yourself. And few things are as easy for a teacher as taking a moment to validate your students! So I encourage you to take a moment today to focus on your students at their core, in whatever way comes naturally to you, and watch with delight as their spirit is renewed.