Say My Name

Correctly pronouncing a person’s name helps to establish a level of trust


Cleveland Publications staff

These students know all too well the struggle of having a name that is hard to pronounce or a complicated spelling. But when someone gets it right or works hard to say it correctly, it doesn’t go unnoticed.

Ronnie Estoque, Staff reporter

Schlekewey. Tanay’E. Bayot. These names all have something in common: They are usually mispronounced.

Names play a significant part in one’s identity, oftentimes carrying a family tradition or a piece of cultural heritage. At Cleveland, which is a diverse mixture of students with unique backgrounds, it is essential that teachers develop strong bonds with the kids. At the center of this is a teacher’s ability to pronounce their students’ names. But what does it do to one’s psyche when others mispronounce their name?

As the Journal concludes its series on diversity, we examine the importance a name carries, and how students and teachers struggle with pronunciations when the school is full of students with complicated monikers. The Journal hopes to spark conversation and new perspectives for Cleveland students.

This is Part 5.

The guessing game

Imagine yourself sitting in your first class on the first day of school. The teacher at the front of the classroom is nervously looking at their class list, knowing that the mispronunciation of a name is an inevitable possibility. Once the teacher gets to your name, you hear them struggle with the syllables and vowels of your name.

You correct them.

Now envision this being the case for every initial encounter you make inside and outside of school. This is the reality of students with hard-to-pronounce names.

According to the Journal of Best Teaching Practices, “learning students’ names is fundamental to developing a sense of community in a classroom’. A teacher who doesn’t take the time to learn the proper pronunciation of their students’ names can be perceived as showing disinterest in their education or being untrustworthy.

Suzanne Porter, the school nurse, can attest that correctly learning student names can have a significant impact on students.

“For identity purposes, I think it’s important to pronounce names correctly and to feel comfortable asking the correct pronunciation,” Porter said.

Learning student names at the beginning of the school year is not exactly the easiest task for teachers. For math teachers – who teach students across all grades – the chance of seeing a returning face is not uncommon. Because Humanities teachers are distinguished by grade levels, every year, those teachers are introduced to students they have never met before. It’s even harder for some elective teachers whose rosters change every semester.

Lost in translation

For Darin Hoop, who is serving out the last few weeks as the long-term Spanish substitute, he has been tasked with learning the names of students at a new school.

“[Learning student’s names] was definitely difficult because I have 190 students,” Hoop said. “That’s just a lot of different students to learn on the fly.”

Being a language teacher, one of Hoop’s many struggles has been learning to pronounce names in English versus Spanish.

“For me the biggest challenge is vowels,” he explained. “How I would pronounce vowels in Spanish versus in English.”

Hoop believes that learning how to pronounce his students’ names early in the school year plays out in developing strong bonds with his classes. 

“A teacher has got to learn it within the first week or two if possible,” Hoop said. “I would study it before class. After class, I’d go down the list of students and practice it over and over to help myself remember.”

Families who want to maintain a connection to their cultural heritage will pass along paternal family names to their children. For students from Africa, this practice results in double names or kids having different last names than their parents.

For instance, for Ethiopian children, the first name is a chosen name. The middle name is traditionally their father’s first name and the last name is the paternal grandfather’s first name. While this is a tradition in their native counties, some students find it annoying when Americans who are unfamiliar with the practice pass judgement about their parents’ relationship status, assuming the couple is unmarried or the child was conceived out of wedlock.

Another unique tradition for students of African descent is double names like Yussuf Yussuf. This happens because children are usually given the first name of their paternal grandfather as their surname.

The name “Jesus” (pronounced Hay-Soos) is common in Mexico. While it may not be difficult to pronounce, it is often confused with the Christian savior.

Freshman Jesus Perez-Salazar doesn’t care when people mispronounce his name but appreciates when people get it right.

“When people get it the first time, it feels very good,” he said.

Han Eckelberg

Nice try

For many students at Cleveland that have difficult names to pronounce, they have grown accustomed to the constant mangling of their names, whether that be early in the school year from their new teacher or from a substitute.

This is the case for freshman Lina Tuiolemotu (pronounced Too-wee-oh-lay-mo-too) and sophomore Forrest Schlekewey (pronounced Shuh-lek-away). Both students say they don’t mind when people get their names wrong, fully acknowledging they are tough to pronounce.

“I don’t really blame [teachers] because it’s long and kind of hard to pronounce,” she said. “I’ll just correct them.”

Tuiolemotu’s, whose name originates from her Samoan culture, solution for people who can’t get her name right is to spell it out phonetically.

“That’s easier for most people.”

Senior Xuanda (pronounced Shwen-da Woo) Wu chooses not to correct people when his name is mispronounced, mainly because very few get it right the first time.

“At this point, I don’t really care anymore; I just roll with what people call me,” Wu said. “I don’t even try to correct it.”

Wu admitted that he gave up trying to correct people around the fourth grade and has allowed his peers to call him Soon-tah for years. In Chinese, his name doesn’t have a specific meaning, but falls more in line with the ancient practice of feng shui, the system of harmonizing everyone with the surrounding environment.

“I got this name from my grandfather,” Wu said. “It’s luck, kind of like how many strokes is in the name.”

While Attendance Specialist Disney Bayot (pronounced Bye-ot) likes having a unique first name, her last name is a bit of a mystery when it come to pronounciation.

Most of Bayot’s colleagues get it wrong with with Bay-oh or Bay-ot, but she’s more understanding with that. Her annoyance comes when people don’t want to believe her first name is Disney.

“It wasn’t the pronunciation,” she said. “They just couldn’t believe that is my first name. They change it up; they called me “Daisy, Destiny, Desiree … anything but my first name.”

Peter Ross, who has been serving as a substitute teacher for Seattle Public Schools for over a decade, acknowledges that roll call at the beginning of class can be a tricky situation to maneuver in a new classroom. Cleveland is one of the main schools in which he substitutes and acknowledges that name pronunciation is a skill he is still refining. 

“If I make a mistake, I just laugh at myself about it,” Ross said. “I don’t want the student to feel embarrassed.”

Close, but not quite

Some names that look easy to say may actually be pronounced differently. For instance, Talia could be pronounced as Tall-ee-uh or or Tall-yah and Fame is actually pronounced as Fah-may. To avoid the hassle of constantly correcting others, some students opt to go by a completely different name from their legal one.

Junior Y Thien Nguyen chooses to be called “Victoria” when introducing herself. Originating from her Vietnamese roots, her name means “special” or “meaningful,” and was given to her by her aunt.

“It’s [pronounced] ‘E’,” Nguyen said. “I think it’s easier for people to say [Victoria] because people always say ‘why.’”

Most people who find their names consistenly butchered can keep their emotions in check, but eventually, the frustration wins out.

Freshman Tanay’E (pronounced Tan-ay-uh) Pines-Glover said her usual reaction to being called the wrong name is anger.

“I kind of get aggressive and say something like, ‘That’s not how you say it!’”

Junior Tsion Woldeyohanes (pronounced See-ohn Wol-day-yo-hon-es) is a little more forgiving – but only to a certain point.

“If it’s way out of line, I’ll just be like, ‘Oh my God’ and correct them.”

Sophomore Tanjanee Chappel (pronounced Tah-juh-nay Sha-pell) tries to find the humor in it.

“Sometimes it’s funny to try to hear them say your name,” she said. “But if the person keeps mispronouncing it, that can be pretty irritating.”

Students who may have difficult first names may also turn to shortened versions of their name to alleviate the extraneous work of explaining the proper pronunciations. Senior Sokchomreum Ro (pronounced Soak-chum-ree-um) is one of these students. He goes by the nickname “Sok.”

“It means good fortune in Cambodian,” Ro said. “They don’t even try to pronounce my name, that’s why they call me Sok.”

Taking the time to learn how to pronounce someone’s name properly not only shows respect for the individual but it also signifies common courtesy. Names are one of the first gifts we are given when born, and despite the frustration with mispronounciation,  Bayot maintains she wouldn’t change hers.

“I can’t imagine myself being another name,” she said.

Because to be called by any other name would not be nearly as sweet.