Why Name Pronunciation Is So Much More Important Than You Think

by Rita Templeton
Originally Published: 
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I have a simple name: Rita. Four letters, no accent marks or special characters, no emphasis on any certain letter. Because it’s such an easy name to say, I’ve never had to deal with chronic mispronunciations, or people calling me something else entirely because they just aren’t sure how to say it.

If you’re like me, and have a name that everybody can pronounce, consider yourself lucky … because that’s a luxury. And then consider the plight of those with names that aren’t so easy — the rare, unconventional, unique names that often give people pause.

Think about how it would feel if no one, outside of your family, ever pronounced your name correctly. If your teachers, coworkers, and peers constantly called you something else. Sure, it would be annoying AF, but it goes much deeper than annoyance. Especially for kids, and particularly if those kids are not white.

Often, children with unusual or non-English names are already struggling with cultural under-representation. They don’t see many people who look like them, or speak the language they speak at home, or see pictures of kids like them in textbooks or ads or on posters. There are few, if any, references to their cultural traditions.

So mispronouncing their names, on top of all this, can lead to feelings of being invisible — of being too inconsequential for those in their daily lives to even bother saying their name properly. They may feel embarrassed, resentful, or ashamed.

Though our intentions are not to tell these kids they’re “less than,” we may be doing just that by simply not bothering to learn what to call them.

If you know a child with an unconventional name — no matter what your role is in their life — one of the most important things you can do is to learn how to say their name the way it’s meant to be said. Not the way “everyone else” says it, or the Americanized pronunciation, but the way it’s pronounced at home.

Professor Rita Kohli, of the Graduate School of Education of UC Riverside, has some fantastic tips for learning, and remembering, a not-so-easy name … and for getting others to follow suit:

1. Ask them.

It seems obvious, but Professor Kohli recommends using very specific wording when asking about child’s name. When talking to the parents of a child with an unusual name, you should say, “How would you like me to say your child’s name?” And when speaking directly to the child, say, “I don’t know how to say your name yet, can you explain it to me? I’m working on learning it, and it’s important to me to say it the way it’s meant to be said, the way your parents say it.”

2. Repeat the name back to the person.

Multiple times, if necessary, until you get it right. Most of the time, just hearing it isn’t enough.

3. Say the name often, until it “sticks.”

Say it again. And again. And again.

4. Think of an association.

If you know a Joaquin, for example, write it down phonetically (wah-KEEN) to help you remember. Or make a simple wordplay, like “Joaquin is walking.”

5. Give the child permission — no, encouragement — to correct you if you get it wrong.

Most kids are hesitant to correct an adult’s pronunciation, so make sure you tell them it’s absolutely okay, and you want them to let you know.

6. If you’re a teacher, a coach, or in a setting with other children who may be mispronouncing a name, make it a group effort.

Say, “I’m trying to learn how to say Joaquin’s name properly, so can you all help me? ‘Wah-KEEN.'”

7. If you hear someone else mispronouncing a child’s name, say it properly within earshot of that person.

More than once, if you have to.

Now, Joaquin may tell you that he prefers the English pronunciation, or another nickname entirely. That’s okay, because by giving him the option, and showing that you care enough to make an effort to learn, your actions speak volumes. You make him feel seen, heard and valued. And for a kid who regularly gets the societal message that he’s not as important, this small gesture can be a big deal.

I think we can all agree to make an extra effort here. Right?

Trying to choose the perfect baby name? Check out the Scary Mommy baby name page here!

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