There’s a common practice among foreign English teachers in Korea where the teachers give their Korean students English names. This can be a class bonding exercise where students joyfully pick their favorite English names as their own, or it can be a more controlled tradition where teachers will assign their students an English name. Either way, I’ve never had the desire to do it and didn’t really think about my reason for that until last week when one of my university students (who uses the English name, Jasmine) asked me, “Why don’t you give us English names for class?” To answer, I should first give you some framework:
1) Korean names can be EXTREMELY difficult for native English speakers to remember. The typical Korean name consists of 3 syllables (sometimes 2). The first syllable is the family name; the most familiar of these being 김 (Kim), 이 (Lee), and 박 (Park). The last two (or one) syllables are the given (or first) name. These syllables and names can be extremely hard to differentiate. In one class, it would not be uncommon to have students by the name of:
- Min Jae
- Min Ji
- Ji Young
- Gi Young
- Jae Young
- So Young
- Su Gyeong
- Hwa Gyeong…you get the picture.
2) Learning my students names has always been objective number one. As a teacher and tutor in the States, I prided myself on how quickly I could learn my students names. The quicker I could learn names, the better the classroom environment. Students (and people) feel valued and respected when you know their names. Knowing names also drastically improves the teacher’s ability to organize, manage, or discipline a classroom and the students.
3) I fully understand and respect that English names can give foreign teachers an immediate connection to their students. Not once have I forgotten a student who says to me, “My English name is (Jasmine, Rachel, Chick, Susan, Harry Potter, etc.) .”
4) I’ve heard opinions from students on both sides of the argument. Some who enjoy using an English name and others who despise it.
I didn’t know the concept of “English names in English class” existed before I came to Korea. When I learned about it, I immediately knew it was something in which I would not want to partake. Instead I made it a point to learn my students’ Korean names. I told myself it was better to call a student by their real, birth name than to dilute their respect for me by making them create a new identity for my benefit. That seemed honest to me. I would do my best to learn the names I could, and if I couldn’t remember a student’s name, then it was my shame.
This was pretty much the summation of my feelings on the topic until recently when I was watching an episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live (which I looooove). In Kimmel’s opening monologue, he made a joke about Kim Jong Un and followed it with a joke about Kim Jong Il. The sound/style of Korean names were basically the punchline of his joke. Before Korea I would have thought the joke deserved a chuckle, but when I heard the joke a couple of weeks ago I just thought, Well, yeah. That’s how Korean names work. It’s not silly. It’s just kind of ignorant of us to laugh because we don’t understand non-Western names.
This all brings us back to last week when Seol Hee (Jasmine) asked me why I don’t use English names with my students. Since the Kimmel joke was fresh in my mind I told her that I think it’s a bit mindless of Westerners to not try to understand Korean (or Asian) names. Instead of Asian students changing their names to be more Western, shouldn’t Western teachers put more effort into learning their students’ true names and adapting to the host culture? That’s how I feel. I understand why foreign teachers use English names. I totally agree that there’s comfort and familiarity with English names and it helps the teacher put a name to a face. I just think we should remember the value of a person’s real name.
As a side note, I’m curious as to how this topic relates to Asian immigrants who choose to use an English name in Western countries, as well as Korean natives who use English names when interacting with Western foreigners.