After deciding to take the leap into teaching English and settling on Korea back at the beginning of 2007, I can remember reading about how many Korean students have English names, and how their teachers often have the ‘honour’ of naming their young students. How fascinating and wonderful I thought.
Giving English language learners and users English names is not unique to Korea, but it certainly seems to be very prevalent here. Some students have English names that they have used most of their lives, others have English names that they’ve used for just a year or so, and some even have multiple English names, or change their name when they feel like it. It’s not only students who have English names, at the company where I currently work, every Korean member of staff in the company (100+) must go by an English name. But not just any English name, it must be unique – as in no-one else in the company can use that name (I was told this is so that there is no confusion when sending in-company e-mails).
I’ve seen a couple of blog posts on the topic of adopting an English name, most recently this one over at ETProfessional (which also includes a couple of links to other posts).
I’ve always found the idea of adopting another name interesting. I don’t really have a strong opinion on it either way, and I’m happy to call L2 users by whatever name they prefer. For students, I’ll usually ask at the beginning of a lesson if the student wants me to call them by their English name or Korean name, and try as best I can to follow their wishes. The only time I avoid using English names is if they are (in my opinion) not suitable as a name (see below).
Every now and again, they will tell me I can choose between their English name or Korean name, and I’ve found myself opting for their Korean name recently, which suggests to me that on some level, I must prefer using Korean names.
I’ve been at my current workplace since 2008, and when I look back to that time, I think that the number of students using English names has decreased, at least that was my opinion. So, yesterday, I sat down with some of my students to get their opinion on the topic of English names. In a similar fashion to my last post on technology, I gave my students some questions to discuss and noted down their responses.
- Do you have an English name?
- Do you use your English name?
- In what situations do you use your English name?
- Did you choose your English name or did someone choose it for you?
- How did you choose your English name?
- Have you ever changed your English name? Why?
- Do you like your English name? Why?
- Do you prefer to use your English name or Korean name at this academy? Why?
All of my students are adults, studying at a private language academy. In yesterday’s class there were 19 students spread across 3 different tables. The responses below are the notes that I took, and are a mixture of different students’ opinions. I have done my best to remove any identifying information.
1. Do you have an English name?
- YES: 13
- NO: 6
2. Do you use your English name?
- YES: 5
- SOMETIMES: 5
- ALMOST NEVER: 1
- NO: 2
3. In what situations do you use your English name?
Most students who said that they used their English name said they did so when meeting foreigners, especially when foreigners can’t pronounce the Korean name. Some of the students said that they would offer their Korean name first to foreign people, but if it was hard to pronounce, they would offer their English name. Others said that they automatically offered their English name when talking with foreign people.
Interestingly, one student said that she uses her English name more than her Korean name, and that all of her Korean friends call her by her English name, even when speaking in Korean.
A couple of the students, who had said they used their English name sometimes, said that they only really used it when they were abroad, but in Korea typically used their Korean names with both Korean and foreign people.
Two different students also reported that they used their English name when they wanted to keep their Korean name secret/hidden. One of the students who said this, explained that her Korean name was very common, so she liked using her English name as it was more unique.
Then a couple of the students said that they only used their English name while they were in the academy.
4. Did you choose your English name or did someone choose it for you?
5. How did you choose your English name?
8 of the students who said that they had an English name said that they chose the name themselves. The remaining 5 said that someone else chose the name for them.
Chosen by someone else
Of the students who didn’t choose their own English name, 2 said that their friend had suggested it, 1 said that their teacher in the Philippines had chosen it, and the other 2 said that their sales consultant at my academy had chosen it for them when they first signed up for their course.
This is something that some ex-sales consultants at my academy used to do quite often. When I first started, I remember one of the sales consultants insisted that students use an English name, and if they didn’t have one, she would give them a sheet with a list of names, leave the room and tell them to choose one by the time she came back! To the best of my knowledge, none of the current members of the sales team does this now, and this might explain why I have noticed a drop in the number of students using English names.
One thing I found quite interesting was that one of the students who had reported that his name had been chosen by his friends said that at the time they had been teasing him. He told me that his friends started calling him an English name after a famous gay American icon, but he didn’t realise, so adopted the name. After finding out that they had been teasing him, he decided to keep the name because he ‘liked it’.
Chosen by themselves
From the students who said that they had chosen their English name themselves, there was a bit of variety. Two students said that they had chosen their name based on an American actor or character. Two others said that they used the initials from their Korean name. One student said that she had chosen her English name because it shared the meaning with her Korean name, and another said that her English name sounded similar to her Korean name.
6. Have you ever changed your English name? Why?
I’ll preface this by saying that in Korea it’s quite common for Koreans to change their Korean name. My wife changed her name about 15 years ago, and I’ve met quite a few students who have done so also – either officially or unofficially – I had intended to ask my students this question, but forgot to add it to the list yesterday. But from other discussion with students, I’ve heard about one girl who changed her name because a fortune teller told her if she kept her original name she would die soon! Another guy came home one day when he was about ten years old to the news that his parents had been to the district office and changed his name. He told me that his parents have never told him why.
Five of the 13 who had English names told me that they had changed their English name at least once. Reasons for doing so included that they were tired of the name, their name was too common (i.e. another student at the academy had the same English name), the ‘r’ sound at the beginning of one student’s name was too difficult for him to pronounce. One student said that she changed her name because it sounded too old-fashioned, before admitting that it sounded Japanese. And one more student said that he decided to change his name to copy an(other) American actor.
I haven’t found it that common for students to change their English name while studying at my academy, although every now and again a student will go away for a year or two (to do their military service, finish university, study abroad, etc.) and come back with a different English name. When I was teaching younger learners, it seemed much more common for students to change their name on a regular basis.
7. Do you like your English name? Why?
- YES: 10
- NO: 3
Most students said that they did like their English name, and the three who didn’t were the three who reported that they didn’t use (or almost never used) their English name.
Reasons for not liking their English name included that it was too long, and one student said that his English name was the same as one of the fictional characters that appears in our academy’s materials (this character is portrayed as a helpless fool who everyone laughs at), and the student felt embarrassed when introducing himself using that name.
8. Do you prefer to use your English name or Korean name at this academy? Why?
I have included some comments here from the students who had no English name, as well as the students who had an English name but said they preferred their Korean one.
Reasons for using their Korean name included: It was easy to remember, they mainly spoke with Korean people, “I’m Korean”. One student said that he felt it would become confusing when students were outside of the academy and wanted students to remember his Korean name. Another student said that because his father had given him his name he wanted to use it. Finally one (very low-level) student told me that he doesn’t have an English name now, because his level was so low, but when he feels that his level has improved, he will choose an English name to reflect his level.
Reasons for using an English name included: The Korean name was as common as the English name (??), the Korean name was more difficult to pronounce for foreign teachers, and again the reason that their sales consultant had suggested they use one when they first signed up and it just stuck.
Some notes on ‘names’
Out of all 13 students who said that they had an English name, I would say 12 of them had a sensible English name. I realise of course that this is very subjective, but the student whose name I felt was not suitable, has an English greeting (?) as his name, rather than an ‘actual’ name. Typically, if a student tells me their English name is something that I think is not that suitable as a name (think along the lines of ‘Mr Superstar’), I’ll use their Korean name.
Also, in writing this post, I have been quite aware of my use of the term ‘English name’. Perhaps this is very English-centric, and I realise that a lot of names are not English in origin. However, in the absence (to my knowledge) of a better term, I have continued to use it.
It appears to me, from my discussions (both yesterday and on other occasions) at least, that Koreans are not quite as attached to their name(s) (either Korean or English) as people from other European/N. American countries. At first, I found this quite surprising considering what some parents go through when their children are born to select an appropriate name.
When my son was born, we decided on his English name quite quickly after he was born. His Korean name was a whole different matter. My mother-in-law drew up a list of possibilities (including the one Korean name I had suggested), and took them down to the ‘professional‘ to see whether the name was acceptable. I don’t quite understand what this professional does exactly other than write out some Chinese characters and then ask for $150, but anything for an easy life. Fortunately, the Korean name that I liked was acceptable because it ‘matched’ my 2-week old son’s character.
But perhaps this seeming willingness to change their Korean name plays a part in the ease at which they are happy to accept an English name.
In terms of choosing an English name, I don’t think most of the students I have spoken to feel too strongly about it, and decide to use an English name because they feel that it will assist foreign people who ‘have difficulty pronouncing’ their Korean name. I get the feeling that some of the students I have spoken to really do embrace their English name and it becomes part of their identity, but that might not be the case for all students.
Either way, I’m happy to call any student by (almost) any name that they choose.