How to pronounce names that sound foreign to you

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You may have been in a situation in which you are introduced to a refugee or immigrant. The person says their name and you don’t understand what they said. You ask them to say it again and you still don’t quite understand. You don’t want to come across rude, and you feel kind of embarrassed for not understanding. You avoid trying to pronounce names altogether.

But when we do learn to pronounce names, it goes a long way towards making our newest neighbors, coworkers, friends, classmates, students, and community members feel welcome.

Different languages have different sounds. If we don’t learn those sounds as children, it can be very difficult to hear and learn those sounds as adults. This makes it hard for you to pronounce names that are new to you. And because most Americans (around 80 percent) only speak English, we truly do have fewer skills to understand and pronounce names from other countries. (People who learn multiple languages learn to identify more sounds.)

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to pronounce names that are new to us. It just means it’s going to take a little work – work that is worth doing because it makes newcomers feel welcome. When we don’t pronounce their names correctly, it can make people feel bad. Even worse, newcomers might feel they are losing part of themselves or important parts of their culture.

So, if we do indeed lack the ability to easily hear the sounds of names that are new to us, how can we learn to pronounce names?

Here are eight tips to help you pronounce names that are new to you.

1. Determine your learning style.

Most research shows that the majority of people who have gone through US schools learn best by either writing information down or seeing it in writing. Only about 20 to 30 percent of people in the US learn best by only listening (at least as adults). Thus, one important thing you can do when you meet a newcomer is ask them to write their name down (typically even individuals who didn’t have the opportunity to go to school can write their names).

After they write it down, you can write it again yourself, phonetically if it helps you with pronunciation. If you find that a specific sound or letter is unfamiliar to you and making the name difficult to pronounce, be specific! Say something like, “I have never seen a ‘ž’ before. Can you pronounce it for me and/or tell me what it is similar to in English?”  

2. It’s okay to ask people to repeat their names but do it one-on-one, not in a group.

If you are in a group, it’s often best to ask people to repeat their names later, rather than when everyone is making introductions. This is especially true if the newcomer is the only “diverse” member of the group.  I’ve often been in group situation where everyone is introducing themselves, “John, Elizabeth, Meskerem,” and the group pauses to ask the newcomer to repeat their name.

Think about if you were a newcomer, and every time you said your name, you knew you would have to stop and repeat it. The reality is, if you are all meeting each other for the first time, you probably won’t remember most people’s names anyway (a few people who are oral learners might, but most won’t). So there is no reason to make the newcomer feel singled out by asking them to repeat their name.

Instead, go up to the person later by yourself and say, “I really want to say your name correctly. I am not always very good at pronouncing names I don’t know. Can you please teach me?” (Or at this point, ask them to write it down for you , OR you can write it down yourself, phonetically, while they say it.)

After they teach you, tell them, “If I say it wrong, please correct me.” You could also tell them, “It’s great you speak more than one language. It’s an asset you bring. I wish I had learned another language.” Then, practice saying their name and know you will probably make mistakes. Say their name in the conversation. Keep trying – it can take multiple times – sometimes 20 or 30 – before we get it right.

3. If you are still having a hard time, ask a close friend of the person or people to help you pronounce names.

Sometimes, when we are trying our best to pronounce names and we can’t, we might start to feel frustrated or embarrassed. Remind yourself language learning is a skill we learn as children and you are being exposed to a new sound. It’s okay if you are having a hard time – in fact, research shows it’s good for your brain! Consider asking a friend of the person whose name you are trying to pronounce to help you. You can say, “I feel silly but I really want to say _______’s name correctly and I’m having a hard time. Can you help me learn to pronounce it?” Ask them repeat it for you. Ask them to write it down for you phonetically. And then try again.

4. If you meet a newcomer with a name you already know (for example, Wilson), don’t ask them, “What’s your real name?”

Sometimes, we may ask people for their “real” name because we want to show them we support them and don’t expect them to assimilate. But asking someone for their “real” name can be hurtful and it’s also otherizing. Instead, when someone tells you their name, assume that is the name they want to be called. A refugee or immigrant who lives in the United States might decide they prefer to be called a name that is easier for Americans to pronounce because that is the right choice for them. This is their choice to make, and when we meet new people, we can support them by calling them the name they tell us.

5. Instead of immediately asking, “Does your name have a meaning,” share the history of your own name.

You may be interested to know what the meaning of your new friend or acquaintance’s name is. However, be aware that not all cultures associate names with meanings. Just like in the US, a name may just refer to the person. If your own name has a unique or personal history, you can share the story of your name. For example, “My name, Jessica, was a very popular name in the late 1970s in the United States.” Or, “My name, Elizabeth, is a family name that was passed down from my great-grandmother.” The person you are speaking to can now choose to share the origin of their name, if they’d like.

6. Don’t ask people if they have a nickname or a shortened version of their name.

Try to make an effort to learn their name using the tips above and you may be surprised at just how well you do! If the newcomer has a nickname they like to be called, they probably would have introduced themselves with that name. Like anyone else, newcomers may go by a shortened version of their name. But it is up to them to tell you this just as it would be if the name were a name you are more familiar with (for example, someone named Isabelle who goes by Izzy). Remember, it’s important people tell us the name they prefer to be called.

7. Have a sense of humor but be careful about making jokes.

Don’t be afraid to sound silly when trying to pronounce a new sound. Remember that some newcomers recognize that their names may be challenging and expect you to mispronounce it at first. Also, know that they will appreciate you making an effort and stepping out of your comfort zone to make them feel acknowledged and welcome.At the same time, do not make jokes about the person’s name in an effort to appear friendly. Saying things like “Wow, you must have had a hard time spelling that as a child” or referring to someone’s name as a “tongue twister” may be hurtful, even if your intention is to lighten the mood.

8. Newcomers may pronounce names incorrectly and you may be okay with that.

Just like you didn’t learn the sounds of Nepali or Somali as a child, many newcomers have a hard time pronouncing English sounds that they did not learn as children. For example, many Latinos pronounce my name as “Yessica,” rather than Jessica. I don’t mind having my name mispronounced because I understand that it’s difficult for them and not a sound they learned in childhood.

More importantly, it’s not the same situation. Because we are living in the USA, where most people speak English, the reality is most people do pronounce my name correctly. I don’t mind the occasional mispronunciation by a newcomer because it doesn’t happen to me over and over, day after day. But for a newcomer, whose name is likely to be pronounced incorrectly all of the time, learning to say their name correctly can go a long way towards showing they are welcome.

When we learn to pronounce newcomers’ names, we are making a strong statement that we welcome and support refugees and immigrants.

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Opinions expressed and advice given in USAHello’s Voices and Hello blogs are the writers’ own. USAHello offers impartial information and online courses to help newcomers in the USA.